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Archive for Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Campaign finance reform faces showdown in House

February 12, 2002

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— A resurgent coalition of Democrats and renegade Republicans, energized by the Enron scandal, is making a final push this week for House passage of the broadest overhaul of the nation's campaign laws in a quarter-century. House Republican leaders are mounting a furious defense of the status quo.

Coalition members hope public outrage over Enron's enormous political contributions will put an end to what they call the corrosive influence of big money on politics. Opponents argue that the reform agenda is an unconstitutional violation of free speech and that it would benefit Democratic candidates.

At issue is the House version of a bill that the Senate approved last April. If the House passes a similar bill and the Senate votes to accept the House changes, the measure would go to President Bush for his signature.

The White House has said publicly that congressional Republicans cannot count on Bush for a veto, even though the House bill, which is scheduled for debate Tuesday and Wednesday, violates some of his principles for campaign finance reform.

Bush has said that a ban on unlimited giving should apply to corporations and unions but not individuals (the House bill includes all three) and that unions should have to get the consent of their members before making political contributions (the House bill has no such feature).

Setting a limit

Stripped to its essence, the question before the House is whether to eliminate unlimited contributions and impose a $95,000 ceiling on what any person may give to influence national elections in any two-year election cycle.

In the last election cycle, the two major parties hauled in nearly $500 million in unlimited, loosely regulated soft money. The scandal-ridden Enron Corp. gave $1.7 million of it and now some of its recipients are ducking for the political cover of campaign finance reform.

A critical edge

Heading into this week's House showdown, the bill's advocates hold a critical edge that they lacked before the Senate debate: They are defending a proven bipartisan majority. In 1999, the House voted, 252-177, to ban soft money. Of those on the winning side, 226 are still in the House, eight more than a majority.

Key to the outcome this time are 43 Republicans from that group. But some Republicans are having second thoughts as party leaders, led by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., warn that campaign finance reform could cost them control of the House. Republicans are defending a narrow 222-211 majority in this year's elections.

"No member of Congress on either side of the aisle likes to turn his or her back on the leadership when they say it's vital," said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., one swing vote.

Any member of Congress who switches position on campaign finance reform during an election year could be on treacherous ground. Public scrutiny of the donations made by Enron, major accounting firms and other groups could prove harmful to the political health of the recipients.

In the debate starting Tuesday, lawmakers will be able to vote on up to 20 amendments and as many as three different bills.

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