Shays calls the GOP's bluff

By trying to force a floor vote on campaign finance reform, Rep. Chris Shays puts his money where his mouth is -- and his career in jeopardy.

Published May 27, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., may have helped put an end to his career Wednesday just by giving his autograph. By signing a discharge petition on campaign finance reform in an effort to force a vote on his bill, Shays is bucking the House GOP leadership, and pissing off more than a few members of Congress.

Now, only 17 more members need to lend their support to bring the bill up for a vote on the floor much earlier than Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, would like. Shays and four other Republicans -- Iowa's Greg Ganske, Delaware's Mike Castle, New York's Michael Forbes and Maryland's Connie Morella - joined 196 House Democrats in signing the petition, bringing the count to 201. A House majority -- 218 -- must sign the petition in order to force a vote.

Signing the petition is tantamount to committing a "treasonous act" against the Republican Party, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., told Roll Call last week. Other GOP leadership sources expressed a bilious anger against Shays for dividing the party and setting off a "civil war" on the floor of the House. Shays acknowledged that signing the petition doesn't exactly "put you on the leadership track." One senior GOP strategist likened Shays to the prideful, obsessed Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," cluelessly heading up the impossible task of building a railway bridge through a dense Asian jungle, not knowing that Allied forces were planning on blowing it up and his efforts were not only all for naught, but against his side's overall strategy

The GOP leadership's collective feeling of betrayal has manifested itself in hints at retribution. Shays revealed at a press conference Wednesday that an official with the National Republican Campaign Committee -- the arm of the Republican National Committee that works on electing and reelecting Republicans to the House of Representatives -- called to "encourage me not to sign."

In an interview with Salon News, Shays elaborated: "There are people in the NRCC who can't wait for there to be a [primary] race against me. They've told me they can't wait to run a good candidate against me" in a primary challenge, he said.

Shays, a liberal Republican who has voted in favor of gun control and abortion rights and against impeachment, has long been at odds with the more conservative wing of the party -- some of whose members are reportedly excited that conservative author and pundit Ann Coulter is mulling a challenge to Shays in the 2000 primary. "Part of me would love to be unopposed," Shays says, "but another part of me says, 'Ann, let's just get on with it and have this race.'"

Though Coulter was unavailable for comment, Shays says that the angry NRCC executive told him that if he had "a good candidate" like Coulter, "he could defeat me. I think he was expecting me to argue the point, but I didn't."

Shays' primary may have officially begun at 1:40 p.m. Wednesday, when the maverick stepped onto the stage in the House news correspondents gallery to announce his intentions to sign the discharge petition.

Shays began by noting that though he usually was quite the chatty Cathy when it came to campaign finance reform, he had been "uncharacteristically quiet the last six months" on his bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., which would ban the free-for-all soft money contributions. Shays said he held his tongue while he worked behind the scenes, "hoping and praying [to convince] my leadership [to] recognize that campaign finance reform was needed."

Though Shays' press secretary said his boss was "pumped up" and felt good about his decision, there was a weariness about the balding, white-haired congressman Wednesday. As he signed the petition, and then mingled about the floor, the gravity of his decision clearly weighed heavily on his shoulders. He didn't smile. "This is a day I dreaded," he said.

Shays' move comes amid fears the House leadership was trying to stymie the bill. Speaker Hastert kept the issue slated for debate in September, a move that, according to Ganske, was made "in deference to the Senate, which wanted to make sure that the bill didn't get over" to their house with enough time for it to pass -- which is exactly what happened one year ago.

"The sooner we can get this bill to the U.S. Senate, the greater likelihood that it will pass," Castle added.

Ganske, a former high school wrestler, underlined the political perils involved in pursuing the bill against the wishes of the GOP House leadership. Noting that his press secretary had headlined that day's press release with "Ganske Goes to the Mat for Campaign Finance Reform," Ganske said, "I hope that's not in reference to that wrestler who fell 50 feet," referring to the death of Owen "The Blue Blazer" Hart, a World Wrestling Federation pro wrestler who died in a rappelling accident during a WWF event in Missouri Sunday night, falling 50 feet and hitting his head on a turnbuckle.

As he made his way down the 50 feet from the Press Gallery to the chamber floor, Shays noted with grim irony that Coulter's possible candidacy might be aided by the very same unregulated soft money he's fighting -- unaccounted-for dollars he says may be shuttled toward Coulter's campaign coffers by his enemies at the NRCC and among the Republican leadership. He noted that Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., refused to compromise his campaign finance ethics when facing a strong challenge during his reelection challenge last year, and that "if Russ Feingold could risk his political career for what he believed in," he could do the same.

Feingold and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have been leading the campaign finance reform fight on the Senate side. They issued a joint press release Wednesday praising Shays for his "bold step" and "powerful and sincere" commitment to the cause.

As they arrived in the chamber -- where dozens of other members of Congress were milling about, chatting and reading up on various bills -- Shays, Castle, Ganske and Forbes immediately signed the petition. Later that day, they were joined by Morella. A total of 53 current House Republicans voted in favor of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill in August 1998, when it passed 252-179. The question now is whether 17 more of these Republican congressmen will step to the plate to allow the discharge petition process to proceed.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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