Is campaign finance reform dead?

Just months after McCain-Feingold's stirring victory in the Senate, it seems to be headed south in the House.

Published July 12, 2001 8:11AM (EDT)

You know it's an important news conference when a full 30 minutes of statements and Q&A passes before a member of the media finally gets around to asking Minority Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., about embattled California Rep. Gary Condit and the missing intern.

The big news on Capitol Hill Wednesday, leaders of the campaign finance reform movement admitted at a Wednesday press conference, was that they may not have the votes to pass their bill when it comes up for a vote Thursday.

The bill, which would arguably be the most sweeping campaign reform passed by Congress in 25 years, would ban soft money and certain advocacy ads. Its Senate version, McCain-Feingold, passed in dramatic fashion in early April, without the support of the White House, but with the prodding of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

But according to the bill's own sponsors, Reps. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., it's in jeopardy, as the two acknowledged at the press conference. This even though, as Gephardt reminded the assembled press throngs, the bill was passed twice in the last three years. Regardless, it's losing supporters faster than Condit is shedding pounds, and the bill's passage on Thursday is anything but assured. Opponents no longer merely include special interest groups like the NRA and Planned Parenthood; now they number in their ranks prominent members of the Democratic Party, like Rep. Martin Frost, former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Rep. Albert Wynn, a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The announcement came as just one piece of a big apple-pie-of-a-day at the Capitol, as members of Congress eased back into the hectic work of public servants after their relaxing, sun-filled Fourth of July vacations. Easing their return was none other than heartthrob Ben Affleck, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on behalf of greater funding for research into ataxia-telangiectasia, a genetic disease. Likewise, that other hunk, President Bush, met with Republican members of the House Wednesday morning, informing them that he planned to "focus on the American people" and push his education bill, his faith-based initiative and a rival patients' bill of rights. Then, of course, swirling in the air around it all was the much-pursued California congressman, the one who put the dog in "Blue Dog Democrat."

But, believe it or not, in the Capitol corridors, the buzz around the possible demise of Shays-Meehan seemed the loudest.

"We don't have the votes yet," Meehan declared. "But we are working diligently to get the votes."

As ordered by the House GOP leadership, which opposes Shays-Meehan, the bill is scheduled for only one day of debate before it comes up for a vote Thursday. Gephardt said he was "talking to members of my caucus on an hourly basis" using "sweet reason" to convince them to go his way on the bill.

One of those dollops of sweet reason includes the overwhelming support Democrats gave the Shays-Meehan bill when it came up in September 1999, passing 252-177, with the support of 197 Democrats, and in August 1998, passing 252-179, with the support of 190 Democrats.

The difference this year, though, is that the bill could actually become law. Many Democrats now consider this a problem, since last year was the first time Democrats had achieved rough parity with the GOP in raising soft-money funds. Republicans continue to vastly outraise Democrats in "hard money," the term for cash raised and spent according to the various limits and disclosure requirements of federal election law. "Soft money" refers to the dough raised and spent completely outside federal election law since it is not directly spent by a candidate on his or her election -- thus soft money is unlimited and unregulated.

So, before the July 4 recess, one Democratic whip count had only 150 supporters for Shays-Meehan, according to a Democratic leadership source. Since their return, the Democratic whip count has increased to around 180 supporters, placing the Democrats anywhere from 15 to 20 votes short of where they need to be for the bill to pass.

On the other side of the aisle, 54 Republicans supported the bill in 1999, and 61 in 1998, but Shays' current count on the bill has him drawing only 30 GOP supporters.

"We cannot stand a lot of erosion on either side," Gephardt said.

Much of the erosion is being attributed to the rival bill being co-sponsored by Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md. -- head of the campaign finance reform task force for the Congressional Black Caucus -- along with the chairman of the House Committee on Administration, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. At a rival press conference on Wednesday morning, Ney declared his rival campaign finance reform bill, supported by the GOP leadership, to have "gained legs, some steam and a lot of credibility."

"I had a member [of Congress] this morning who said, 'I am switching from Shays-Meehan to the Ney-Wynn bill,'" Ney bragged.

The most significant difference between Shays-Meehan and Ney-Wynn is that the Ney-Wynn bill permits individual donations of $75,000 in "soft money" to federal party committees for activities that don't refer to federal candidates, and permits all state and local soft money activities. The Shays-Meehan bill bans soft money outright. (For an impartial Congressional Research Service comparison of the two bills, one that requires Adobe Acrobat, click here.)

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, despite having voted for the soft money ban in the past, have expressed a sudden concern that a ban on soft money will seriously hamper voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote efforts targeted at minority communities. Ney has been aggressively courting members of the black caucus for support for his bill, including a personal round of telephone calls on Monday.

"One of the things people have said was, 'Well, Congress has already passed Shays-Meehan, why do we need to take a look at this again?'" Wynn said Wednesday morning. "Well, I think the situation in Florida in the recent election highlighted two important points. One, that when soft money was invested for those true purposes of get out the vote, voter registration, you could significantly increase minority participation ... We need more resources for voter education. Perhaps if there were more education tools, sample ballots, things like that, some of the confusion that was experienced in Florida would have been avoided."

Several months ago, in an attempt to address these concerns, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., offered an amendment to the affiliated campaign finance reform bill in the Senate that would allow individuals to give $10,000 to political parties for such activities. But a number of good-government types, troubled by what they saw as potential loopholes in the bill, set to correct the Levin amendment in Shays-Meehan after the Senate bill, McCain-Feingold, passed. They tightened it up.

Black caucus members and other skeptical Democrats saw problems with the new Levin amendment, as it was incorporated into Shays-Meehan. "The amount of money that is allowed under the Levin amendment, now incorporated into the Shays bill, would be inadequate for the objectives we're talking about," Wynn said. "Ten thousand dollars for a state party -- and I'm from a small state, like Maryland -- is just woefully inadequate for what we need to do ... I think the $75,000 exception makes a lot of sense."

Black caucus members have also expressed concern with the McCain-Feingold bill's increase in hard money limits, which was such a key amendment in the Senate battle. In response, the Shays-Meehan coalition tinkered with their bill to keep hard money donation caps to House candidates at their current levels, while allowing the Senate increases.

Reformers like McCain, Feingold, Shays and Meehan aren't focused on what good can come of soft money. They see soft money as allowing the rich -- whether it's Federal Express or Denise Rich -- undue influence on the legislative process. Since the Ney bill will still allow large soft money contributions, Shays sees the $75,000 per donor per cycle per party cap as essentially meaningless, allowing a future Denise Rich to give the Democrats $450,000 over a two-year cycle.

"He's put together a bill that offends no one and does very little," Shays said of Ney.

Normally, the House would simply pass its version and hope that the Senate-House conference committee would work out whatever kinks exist in the two bills. But supporters of Shays-Meehan in the House and McCain-Feingold in the Senate were worried that the enemies of their bills would find a way to sabotage their efforts in conference committee. On Tuesday afternoon, the six principals -- Shays, Meehan, Gephardt, McCain, Feingold, and Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. -- met to hash out their differences so that they could avoid conference committee.

"Some of the things we dismissed out of hand, and Marty did as well," Shays said. "But a number of changes were made." In the end, the Shays-Meehan bill was tinkered with so that the aggregate amount of money an individual could donate was increased from $75,000 to $95,000. Additionally, the Levin amendment was clarified so federal officeholders couldn't have anything to do with the $10,000 donation, and the money would be prohibited from paying for any broadcast advertising.

"I've worked with Dick Gephardt very closely in the last 48 hours to try to develop a strategy that will allow us the confidence that we have the votes necessary to pass it," Daschle told reporters on Wednesday morning. "I would say that it's unlikely that we would be as successful" in a conference committee. "If we could simply take up the bill on the Senate floor without having to go to conference, it would be a far better approach. And so, I would like -- that would be my hope, is that we could take up whatever the House has passed and send it on to the president without going to conference."

But Ney saw more than compromise in the Tuesday meeting. "The Shays-Meehan coalition is falling apart so quickly they're attempting to gut their own bill and tear up their own principles in a cynical attempt to gain votes," he charged. "Because Shays-Meehan is still evolving as you are all sitting here and as we speak, in fact, people are starting to now become confused what is Shays-Meehan anymore and as a result of that I think they want to catch their breath."

Shays-Meehan coalition members disagreed with Ney's assessment. "One of the difficulties in battling on this bill is the misinformation provided on an hourly basis," Meehan said.

For whatever reason, Ney's bill is gaining steam. In the past few weeks, McCain has been trying to shore up support among GOP House freshmen, writing them public letters reminding them of his campaign appearances for them last year. This week, just as he did with seemingly wobbly Democratic senators during the Senate debate, his Straight Talk America PAC sent out an e-mail to its approximately 200,000 members asking them to phone up those his political advisors judge to be wavering or on the fence.

"The vote is close and I have a list of a number of House members who's [sic] support we could use," McCain wrote, urging them to telephone 10 congressmen "and let them know that we want their support for the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance legislation. In addition, please let them know that the Ney bill is an unacceptable measure of reform." The list included seven freshmen, GOP Reps. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania, Henry Brown of South Carolina, Michael Ferguson of New Jersey, Todd Akin of Missouri, Ander Crenshaw of Florida and Felix Grucci of New York.

"It will be a mistake for some of these freshmen to vote against the bill," Shays said. "Usually freshmen want reform, and it's not until they've been captured by the process that they change." Shays noted that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime foe of campaign finance reform and former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, leaned on freshman Republican senators to vote against McCain-Feingold in 1999. "Some senators caved in to Mitch's wishes last time because he was giving out the money," Shays said. Five of these senators, all McCain-Feingold opponents, lost their seats to Democrats who supported campaign finance reform.

On Wednesday afternoon, McCain sent out another e-mail alert to his Straight Talk minions, this one including the names of 41 other Republican House members he suspects might be a tad wobbly but who have been reliable supporters of a soft money ban in the past. "Ney's legislation would only cap soft money contributions at rates so high that would render the law ineffective," the e-mail stated.

At almost the same time, Common Cause sent out an alert to its supporters lambasting Democratic Reps. Martin Frost of Texas -- the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- and close labor allies William Lipinski of Illinois and Robert Brady of Pennsylvania for circulating a letter against Shays-Meehan. Specifically, Frost, Lipinksi and Brady slam the provision in the bill that prohibits congressmen from playing a role in the raising of soft money funds for any activities. "Thus Members of Congress can't pick up the phone or sign a letter to help their state or local parties conduct the type of voter registration or GOTV [get out the vote] activities that have been at the core of political parties for decades ..." (Click here for the letter, which requires Adobe Acrobat.)

In a press release titled "Frost Effort to Derail Reform," Common Cause president Scott Harshbarger accused the Democrats of "using cynical scare tactics in a blatant effort to derail reform. This is just a desperate attempt to preserve the soft money system ad nauseam." For a while, Common Cause has considered Frost to be an opponent of a soft money ban for reasons of basic party self-preservation. Lipinksi and Brady are close allies of labor unions, which have also expressed concern about a soft money ban since unions derive much of their legislative power from being big contributors to the Democratic Party.

Ney lambasted these tactics. "You know, names are bandied about, and I hope that in the whole discussion of this legislation we realize there's a lot of good members, both sides of the aisle, in this House. And in fact if they don't like this bill, just continuously push people around, to have hardball political pressure, I don't think is a good tactic."

Wednesday afternoon, Meehan and Shays were scrambling to correct the record, sending a "Dear colleague" letter to House members disputing the Frost-Lipinski-Brady letter. While Shays-Meehan will prohibit congressmen from raising soft money, the letter stated, it still allows them to raise unlimited amounts of hard money for state parties, and to work on voter registration and GOTV efforts on behalf of federal candidates. "It distorts our bill to suggest that Members are 'divorced' from local political activities, or face some new potential criminal liability for working with local parties," the letter concludes.

Wednesday afternoon, a GOP strategist affiliated with the McCain-Feingold crew and a Democratic strategist affiliated with Team Shays-Meehan expressed cautious optimism about the bill's chances. Both, however, acknowledged that the final vote on the bill would be close, and that it would be difficult to predict what would happen between now and the time that the bill is introduced on Thursday.

"This is a very fluid situation," Wynn said.

Agreed Ney: "This is a cliffhanger."

By Jake Tapper

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

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