- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2001

This week's House debate over campaign finance reform will be very different from the last two run-throughs.
A version has already passed the Senate, leaving House members without the backstop they had in 1998 and 1999, when campaign finance bills passed the House only to fail in the Senate. Now representatives are re-examining their support for the issue, and Republican leaders are planning parliamentary moves to derail the legislation.
"We would like to have a good bill go to conference, but we obviously also want to make sure that some of the obvious weaknesses are addressed, " said Terry Holt, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican.
"McCain-Feingold was likely unconstitutional, " Mr. Holt said of the bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, that passed the Senate 59-41 in April.
On Wednesday the House Rules Committee will set the terms for the debate, which is scheduled to begin Thursday. Two bills are pending — the Shays-Meehan bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, and Marty Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, which is similar to McCain-Feingold, and a rival bill sponsored by Reps. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, and Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat.
The Ney-Wynn is supported by House Republican leaders hoping to prevent a wholesale overhaul of current campaign laws.
Backers of the Shays-Meehan bill say they want to end national political parties' access to "soft money" — usually, large contributions that have to be disclosed but aren't limited and that parties spend on issue ads or party-building activities such as voter registration or voter turnout drives. They also want to limit outside groups' ability to run issue ads, which don't explicitly advocate the defeat of a candidate but often come very close, in the days leading up to an election.
Opponents say the reform bill destroys the importance of political parties and violates the Constitution by silencing advocacy groups. They have two shots at derailing the bill.
One is to try to garner enough support to pass the Ney-Wynn bill, which limits but doesn't ban soft-money donations to national parties, and which requires disclosure but doesn't restrict interest groups from running issue ads.
The other strategy is to attach amendments to the Shays-Meehan bill that make it unpalatable to a majority of the House or that make it different enough from the Senate version that senators couldn't accept it. Then the bill would go to a conference between the two chambers and, though nobody knows what a conference would do, reformers fear the result would be toothless.
Having Mr. Wynn, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, supporting their plan is a feather in Republican leaders' cap, and it's exactly the type of defection Democrats fear. Mr. Wynn said his epiphany on the issue came from last year's election in Florida, where an enormous "turn out the vote effort" boosted black turnout to record levels.
But Shays-Meehan supporters say the Ney-Wynn bill is a paper tiger that just shifts soft-money donations away from national parties to state parties.
"The more I've looked at this, the more I've concluded that this bill is the very antithesis of what it appears to be, and once that's publicized, support for it will collapse, particularly among Democrats, " said Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institute.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics Democratic committees raised $520.4 million in the past elections cycle, of which $245.2 million was soft money. That was competitive with Republicans' soft-money receipts, which came to $249.8 million, but Republicans trounced Democrats in raising hard money. Republicans took in $465.8 million in 1999 and 2000.
About 40 House Republicans voted for reform in 1998 and 1999, and Republican leaders want to peel away that support. Likewise, Democratic leaders need to try to keep their caucus intact.
"The bottom line is whether the Republican leadership will be able to switch votes and whether [House Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt will be able to maintain unity," said Marshall Wittman, a congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute and an informal adviser to Mr. McCain.

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