- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

Backers of campaign-finance reform yesterday won the right to a full House vote on their bill after garnering 218 signatures on a petition to force the bill to the floor.

Four House members yesterday signed the "discharge petition," bringing the total number of signatories to an absolute majority of representatives and forcing the vote.

Backers of the bill said that winning the right to a vote doesn't necessarily mean the bill will pass, but they said the petition means the vote will take place on fair terms.

"We don't know if this bill is going to pass, we don't know if it's going to pass in the form we want it to, to go to the Senate. We don't know. But that's what the debate's really going to be about," said Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican and the chief sponsor of campaign-finance legislation in the House, along with Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat.

The Shays-Meehan bill had been in limbo since the summer, when its backers rejected the rules of debate crafted by House Republican leaders, who then said the proposal had lost its chance for a vote. Backers of restrictions on campaign finance then had to turn to the "discharge petition" procedure to force the bill back to the floor.

Mr. Shays and others said they hope for a vote in the next two months. Republican leaders had said if the petition succeeded they would move quickly on a vote.

The bill's backers say the collapse of Enron Corp. and the revelations about its donations to politicians gave them the momentum.

"As the Enron storm clouds roll in, the public's tolerance for this soft-money system is growing increasingly thin," Mr. Meehan said.

Shays-Meehan would ban the uncapped "soft money" contributions to parties, mainly from corporations and unions. The bill also would restrict when and how anyone other than the candidates themselves can run issue ads about federal candidates.

Opponents, though, argue that limiting soft money and issue ads violates free-speech rights and generally argue for better disclosure. Their alternative bill in the House would cap, but not eliminate, soft money donations.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday the president wants to see soft money banned and though he won't commit to signing whatever comes out of Congress, he wants to sign a bill.

But at the same time, he said the president's refusal to block campaign finance legislation might cause the coalition supporting the bill to break down.

"The president has made it very clear to Congress that they cannot count on him to veto campaign finance reform, and I think in that process, it forced the debate to become a real one," he said. "That's one of the reasons I think you've seen many Democrats really start to question whether or not they want campaign finance reform to eventually be sent to the president."

Campaign finance reform easily passed the House in 1998 and 1999, only to fail in the Senate both years. But last year's Senate passage of a bill meant House members who had considered the earlier votes free, knowing Senate opposition, now took a closer look at the bill.

Many have found particulars of the bill they don't like particularly some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who believe the bill will hurt party-sponsored "turn out the vote" efforts in minority communities.

There are other potential roadblocks. Shays-Meehan differs from the bill that passed the Senate, and therefore it would have to go before the Senate for a vote, giving opponents there the opportunity to kill it by a filibuster.

But Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and one of the proposal's chief sponsors, said he doesn't think all 41 senators who voted against the Senate version of campaign-finance reform in 2000 would support a potential filibuster.

"In light of the momentum of this issue, in light of what the president said that he wants to sign a bill they would be filibustering, in effect, the president," Mr. Feingold said.

Even if the bill is passed and signed, it is certain to be challenged in court.

Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, is planning legal strategy to block the law should it be passed.

"Our attorneys, teaming up with former Independent Counsel Ken Starr, will directly challenge the unconstitutional provisions of these bills should they become law," he wrote in a letter to supporters this week.

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