- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

The House sponsors of a bill to impose new regulations on campaign donations said yesterday they will try to persuade wary Democrats to accept the Senate-passed version to avoid at all costs a conference committee.

"If you go to conference, you are basically allowing the opponents of campaign finance reform to write the bill," said Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican. "I don't see why we would want to do that."

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose bill would ban so-called soft-money donations to political parties, went so far as to suggest a House-Senate conference committee would be undemocratic.

"We're not going to let a bill be written in conference that would emasculate the campaign finance reform," Mr. McCain said. "We've come too far. That's not democracy. Our strategy is clear: We would like to avoid a conference."

Opponents of the campaign finance legislation have acknowledged they hope to water down the bill in a House-Senate conference committee or let it die there.

If the House sponsors of the bill are to avoid that scenario, they must convince a substantial number of Democrats to accept increases in the limits for so-called hard-money donations to candidates, a prospect that Democratic leadership sources consider unlikely.

The Senate bill sponsored by Mr. McCain and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, would raise the limit for individual donations to candidates from $1,000 to $2,000. Many Democrats fear such legislation would aggravate their hard-money disadvantage with Republicans.

In the 1999-2000 campaign cycle, Republicans outraised Democrats in hard money, $447.4 million to $269.9 million.

"I would prefer the hard money numbers to have stayed the same, rather than increase," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor of the House bill. "But I have to tell you, I was more concerned that [senators] were going to triple the hard-money figures. This is one of the things we're going to have to work out with our members."

House supporters of campaign finance legislation in both parties yesterday urged the Republican leadership to schedule a vote soon to capitalize on momentum from the Senate's action.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, gave no timetable yesterday but indicated a vote will take place sooner rather than later.

If House sponsors have held their supporters from previous years, "then I think you're talking about a compelling issue that will find its way on the calendar," Mr. Armey said.

As the House prepared to take up the legislation, the lead opponent in the Senate scheduled a strategy session to discuss a potential court challenge. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the session today will include election law analysts and members from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Coalition and the National Right-to-Life Committee.

The focus on a conference committee has intensified, in part, because the House has approved campaign finance legislation twice in recent years and Republican leaders do not believe they have the votes to defeat a bill on the floor.

"We don't have the votes to kill this bill," said a House Republican leadership aide. "Everybody thinks we have something up our sleeve we don't."

This source said Republicans will try to attach as many amendments as possible to the bill in the House to ensure the need for a conference committee to reconcile differences in the two versions.

"It's not going to be McCain-Feingold," the aide said. "It's going to be amended on the floor."

Mr. Shays said he hoped any amendments to the House bill would be minor, "technical" adjustments that would allow the measure simply to go back to the Senate for another vote instead of a conference committee.

Mr. McCain said he does not have an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for another vote on the issue, which already has consumed two full weeks of Senate debate.

"But I still believe that we have 60 votes, even though there was only 59 that voted for final passage, that we could, if necessary, bring the bill up again, as amended … and dispose of it," Mr. McCain said.

Sixty votes in the Senate are needed to end debate on an issue and proceed to a final vote. McCain-Feingold was approved 59-41 on Monday night.

Mr. Armey said the House Administration Committee probably will hold hearings on the legislation as the next step. He also accused Democrats of hypocrisy for promoting a ban on soft money while House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt recently started a new political action committee funded with such donations.

"Democrats will continue to raise soft money hand over fist while they declaim it to the world as something evil," Mr. Armey said. "I think it is inappropriate for him to feign moral outrage about everybody else in the world doing it while he is doing it."

Mr. Armey called attention to a recent "tirade" by Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, on Republicans' support for soft money, and said, "I think Torricelli ought to give Gephardt that speech and that lecture."

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