House Democratic leaders are offering to create a get-out-the-vote fund to keep black Democrats from defecting to a Republican-backed campaign finance bill.
“The Black Caucus is trying to force the Democratic Party to make more of a commitment to voter registration and get-out-the-vote,” said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat and sponsor of a rival bill favored by Democrats. “That’s what they’re working for, and the Democratic leadership is responding to their concerns.”
Both parties expect a close vote on the issue tomorrow, and some big labor unions have joined black Democrats in opposing the Democrats’ bill.
In the face of those setbacks, Mr. Meehan introduced a race card of sorts, urging black Democrats to vote with the party because, he said, House Republican leaders have opposed other issues important to minorities.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, with Mr. Meehan at his side, predicted victory on his signature issue of banning large campaign donations to political parties, known as “soft money.”
“I am confident the bill will be passed,” said Mr. McCain, who told an audience in Boston a day earlier that passage was uncertain.
Mr. McCain also denied accusations that he is bullying freshman House Republicans for whom he campaigned last year into voting for the House version of his bill.
“That’s not my style,” Mr. McCain said. “My letter was polite to them.”
House Republican leaders were hopeful yesterday that the rival campaign finance bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, which would cap soft money donations instead of banning them, will pass instead. They held a special briefing on the bills last night for about 20 undecided House Republicans.
“It’s pretty much a jump ball,” said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican.
The House has approved Mr. Meehan’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, in each of the past two sessions of Congress, with 252 votes each time. But opponents of the ban on soft money say House members no longer can rely on political cover from the Senate, which defeated earlier bills but approved the legislation this spring.
A House Republican leadership aide said that most undecided members in recent days “are coming down favorable to Ney” and that Democratic leaders might try to delay a vote until next week.
Mr. Ney said Congressional Black Caucus members are among those who are giving his bill a second look. He said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat and the caucus’s campaign finance committee chairman, who is co-sponsoring Mr. Ney’s bill, today will announce other members who support their bill.
They oppose Shays-Meehan because it would ban the soft money donations that Democrats use to encourage voter turnout in minority districts. Many black politicians believe they benefit more from these donations than from “hard money” contributions made directly to candidates.
Mr. Meehan said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and other Democratic officials are working to keep black members on board for the Shays-Meehan bill by promising party money for get-out-the-vote efforts. It was not clear yesterday how the party would raise such funds or who would control such targeted spending.
“I agree with the black caucus that the Democratic Party should do more in terms of getting our money to grass-roots politics,” Mr. Meehan said. “I don’t think the Democratic Party has put nearly enough money into voter registration, voter identification, voter education and get-out-the-vote.”
A senior House Democratic leadership aide said discussions were continuing last night with Mr. Gephardt, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other Democratic leaders.
“Nothing has been decided,” the aide said.
Mark Nevins, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the DCCC has been working with members of the black caucus on get-out-the-vote campaigns and will “ratchet up” that effort if necessary.
Mr. Wynn said Democrats “need to be investing more, not less, in get-out-the-vote.” But he said he will vote against Shays-Meehan regardless of any decision to spend more on minority districts.
Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrat and a member of the black caucus, said Democrats spend about 8 percent of soft money on boosting turnout and that increasing that amount “absolutely” would sway some black Democrats toward Shays-Meehan.
Some of the more veteran members of the black caucus, such as Democratic Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and John Lewis of Georgia, meanwhile were lobbying their colleagues to vote with the Democrats on campaign finance.
“I’m hopeful at the end of the day that they will stand firm with the Democratic Party in favor of reform,” Mr. Meehan said.
The Massachusetts Democrat also ridiculed efforts by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, an ardent foe of campaign finance regulations, to work with black and Hispanic Democrats against Shays-Meehan.
Mr. DeLay “supported efforts on the floor of the House to roll back the motor-voter law, supported efforts to deny bilingual materials being available at ballot boxes” and opposed efforts to allow legal immigrants to donate to political campaigns, he said.
“So I don’t think the interests or the agenda of the black caucus or the Hispanic caucus is served by any kind of alignment with Tom DeLay,” Mr. Meehan said.
DeLay spokeswoman Emily Miller said Democrats “are trying to demonize Tom DeLay to keep members from voting with their consciences.”
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has come out against Shays-Meehan because of its expected impact on grass-roots efforts. Other unions opposing the Shays-Meehan bill include the National Association of Letter Carriers, the Transport Workers Union and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They especially object to provisions restricting electioneering activities by outside groups such as labor unions, and one boosting hard-money donations.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.