Processed to death

House GOP leaders lose a procedural battle to block campaign finance reform, but win the war. R.I.P. Shays-Meehan.

Published July 13, 2001 7:44PM (EDT)

Connecticut Republican Rep. Christopher Shays woke up with a bad feeling about the prospects for passing his campaign finance reform bill in the House on Thursday. Despite his low-key assertion that "I have a lot of hope" about the bill during a morning press conference, he hesitated when asked whether he was satisfied that Republican leaders would deal fairly with the legislation.

As campaign finance reform's godfather, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., smiled wryly in the background, Shays paused for a long time before responding. "I had a distinguished senator say we were going to get screwed," he deadpanned.

And the distinguished senator turned out to be right. By day's end, House Republican leaders had succeeded in killing -- or at least rendering comatose -- the campaign finance bill offered by Shays and Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan. There's almost zero chance the bill will be reconsidered before the fall, and it could be as late as next year.

The Shays-Meehan bill would virtually ban soft money, the unlimited donations that unions, corporations and individuals make to political parties. It would also ban certain types of political advertising in the final 60 days of a campaign. Its Senate version, McCain-Feingold, passed in early April, but the House has been a much tougher sell, even though roughly the same bill passed the House in 1998 and 1999.

This year, though, with McCain-Feingold passing the Senate, bipartisan campaign finance reform skeptics have begun to coalesce around a rival House bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., head of the campaign finance reform task force for the Congressional Black Caucus. But even Ney-Wynn supporters blasted the Republican leadership's tactics Thursday.

Congressional GOP leaders began the assault on Shays-Meehan in the dead of night, with the House Rules Committee announcing before 2 a.m. that it wanted to break Shays' adjustments to the bill into 12 separate sections for debate, instead of letting them go to the floor as a single package.

Given that the chamber had scheduled just one day of debate on the measure, Democrats and moderate Republican backers of the bill balked, and voted 228 to 203 against the rule. With that, the GOP leadership declared that -- because of the intransigence of the bill's supporters and sponsors -- Shays-Meehan would go back to the Rules Committee, and not emerge again until the grown-up Republican majority damn well felt like it.

"Right now I have no plans to bring this bill up," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Other Republicans merrily announced that they wouldn't have to deal with Shays-Meehan again until the fall.

That's the short story of the Shays-Meehan defeat. But this was a long-story day, with the eventual victors climbing the crooked path to their winners' circle, and the losers getting a chance to cover their mistakes and paint their defeat in righteous indignation.

Republican leaders seemed entirely unprepared for the level of resistance provoked by their midnight chop suey treatment of Shays-Meehan. Rather than finding a willing coalition of anti-reformers and loyal Republicans willing to support the piecemeal debate structure, the maneuver earned the opposition of 19 Republicans and all but one Democrat. Even some of the Shays-Meehan bill's sworn opponents believed that the Republican leaders had gone too far.

"This is the stupidest rule I have seen in 23 years," said Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat who had lobbied his colleagues to defeat Shays-Meehan. On Wednesday, Frost had circulated a letter declaring, "If Shays-Meehan becomes law in its current form, Members of Congress will be divorced from local political activities in their home districts in a way that harms the democratic process, rather than helping it, as many reform proponents would suggest." On Thursday, he voted with the bill's supporters to quash the rule.

The bill's Republican opponents apparently figured out that they had a problem on their hands before the vote, and if they hadn't come to that conclusion on their own, Shays-Meehan supporters let them know. Early in the afternoon, Shays himself delivered a message to Hastert from the reform squad that the rule would go down to defeat and that the GOP had better back down and let the debate go forward.

Hastert said something like "OK" to Shays' demand that the bill's 12 parts be put back together again. But there was a catch. In exchange for repairing the Shays-Meehan fracture, the GOP wanted the bill's supporters to allow Ney to propose an amendment to their legislation. The catch's catch: The Shays-Meehan team wouldn't know what was in the amendment before it hit the floor.

That didn't fly. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said he couldn't possibly prepare Democrats to debate an amendment sight-unseen, and insisted that the Republicans give him two hours to look over any new measure from Ney. "I don't know what's going to happen," he said as he left the House floor at about 4 in the afternoon, saying that he couldn't guess what the Republicans would do next. Gephardt saw a basic choice available to the GOP: allow their doomed rule to get defeated on the floor, and then regroup; or go ahead with the compromise, giving the Democrats two hours to get a look at the amendment, and proceed from there.

Meanwhile, congressional Republican supporters of Shays-Meehan threw their weight behind the blind-amendment compromise. "It seems acceptable," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., of the deal. McCain ally Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters that he believed that the details would be ironed out, and that debate would go forward on Shays-Meehan. "I think it looks pretty good," he said.

It didn't look good for long. About an hour later, Republicans flooded back into the chamber with Reynolds thundering that if Shays-Meehan supporters wanted to defeat the 14-section debate proposal, they'd be putting their own beloved bill to sleep for the foreseeable future. But the coalition didn't back down, and voted down the rule anyway.

After the vote, GOP leaders accused Democrats of intentionally sinking their own bill to avoid an embarrassing defeat, and to preserve the issue for future campaigns. "I know a political day when I see one," said New York Republican Rep. Thomas Reynolds, accusing the Democrats of turning the vote into "an opportunity to make mischief in the House." Majority Leader Dick Armey was even more damning, sneering that the Shays-Meehan coalition was "not willing to do the hard work on the legislation" and "obviously not capable of taking [the process] seriously." Ney suggested that the Democrats defeated the rule in order to escape competition from his bill. "This is a smoke screen to stop campaign finance reform," he said.

"That's ludicrous," Gephardt said after the vote defeating the rule. "Does he really expect anybody to believe that?"

Shays-Meehan supporters in both parties gathered at a late press conference to grimly lick their wounds, shaking their fists at culprits named or unnamed. "This was hardball politics today," Graham said. "I don't know who's to blame." While Shays himself said that both parties were responsible for the defeat, he saved the harshest words for his fellow Republicans. "The fix was on," Shays said, adding that the House leaders never intended to deal with the issue fairly. "There was no real dialogue."

Perhaps because the wreck didn't happen on his turf, Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and McCain's reform partner in the Senate, was determined to be sunny in defeat. "It was a great day," he proclaimed, proudly pointing to the 19 Republicans who jumped ship on the rule vote as evidence that the reform tide was growing. Feingold suggested that he and the other reformers would soon be back, perhaps using their own parliamentary move, a discharge motion, to force the Rules Committee to let Shays-Meehan go.

McCain himself joined Feingold's call for continued battle, but declined to put a smiley face on the vote. "This is not a happy day," he said.

Lost in much of the mourning over Shays-Meehan was the question of whether the bill could have survived the up or down vote that its proponents had been begging for. At the funereal press conference, none of the supporters said unequivocally that they had garnered enough votes to ultimately prevail. Gephardt, responding to Republican accusations that he would have preferred a showy defeat to a win on campaign finance reform, said only, "I've worked for days to get Democrats prepared to vote for this bill."

But it wasn't clear how much that work would have panned out, specifically the minority leader's aggressive lobbying of the Congressional Black Caucus. Early Thursday afternoon, Gephardt had emerged from a more than hourlong meeting with African-American lawmakers with a pained expression, lowered shoulders and a determined march away from reporters. Caucus member and Shays-Meehan backer Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., conceded that not a single member had switched sides after the discussion.

McCain apparently had more luck on his side of the aisle, spending much of Thursday on the phone, warming the cold feet of Republican members who had supported Shays-Meehan in previous years but were showing signs of wavering. While McCain believes that a discharge motion to move the bill to the floor may yet revive the legislation in the coming weeks, spokeswoman Nancy Ives said that the Arizona senator didn't want to talk deadlines. "We need to take things one step at a time," she said, adding that McCain, a visitor to the House, would prefer to stand back from decisions about a possible discharge motion. "Our first choice would be to have the House leadership to bring [it] up," she said.

As the Republican co-sponsor, Shays would naturally take the lead on the bill's resurrection, but he seemed near despair over the ugliness surrounding the bill's tumble. After the vote to stop the Republican rule change -- and ultimately stop his bill -- Shays walked away from the House floor, arm in arm with his wife, resting his head on her shoulder. His press secretary waved off reporters, asking that Shays be allowed some time alone.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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