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House Passes Campaign Finance Bill

Thursday, 14 February 2002 12:00 AM

"Reformers" won that final vote just before 3 a.m., 240-189. "Soft money" is the term used for unregulated funds contributors make to political parties.

During a marathon day of debate that started Wednesday morning, supporters of the "Shays-Meehan" bill successfully fought off two separate substitute bills and almost all of what they called "poison pill" amendments designed to scuttle their legislation.

In a twist early Thursday morning, the House did vote 232-196 to adopt an amendment Democrats had labeled a poison pill that would prohibit political parties from using leftover, unregulated "soft money" for building construction after the bill takes effect. After the vote, however, Democrats backed off claims it would kill their legislation. "Soft money just received a death sentence," Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., said.

The final version is similar but not identical to the McCain-Feingold bill the Senate passed last April, increasing the chances that the Senate could turn around and pass the House version and skip a House-Senate conference where opponents could almost certainly kill it.

Debate took place in the shadow of Enron's colossal financial collapse, galvanizing concern about the appearance of influence peddling, lawmakers said.

Detractors called the bill a sham that would do little to improve the political system and would instead infringe on Constitutional rights. They also said it would harm the viability of the two political parties.

The final bill bans the two national parties from using unregulated and unlimited "soft money" contributions that they have targeted for specific elections to circumvent limits on "hard money" donations from individuals. Corporations and labor unions also are barred from running political advertisements in the days before an election.

It also raises limits on "hard money" contributions from individuals to a total of $4,000 per election cycle, and lets donors give state political parties $10,000 for get-out-the-vote drives. It is named after its sponsors, Reps. Meehan and Chris Shays, R-Conn.

In contrast to the Senate bill, the Shays-Meehan bill would not give candidates broadcast time to run political advertisements at the lowest unit rate -- a prickly proposition for candidates in pricey media markets like New York and New Jersey. It also contains a clarification designed to ensure that parties don't start using "soft money" to pay off "hard money" debt.

None of the provisions in the Shays-Meehan bill take effect until after the next mid-term election in 2002.

Earlier on Wednesday the House voted to set aside two alternative bills, including a 249-179 vote to defeat a substitute by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. Thirty-nine Republicans joined the Democrats in a later 240-190 vote to accept the Shays-Meehan bill as the vehicle for debate.

In one close call for the proponents, the House narrowly defeated an amendment targeted at gun rights advocates in a 219-209 vote.

The White House has stayed relatively aloof on campaign finance "reform," but stepped into the fray Wednesday by launching fresh criticism at the Shays-Meehan measure. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer hammered what he said was a new loophole that had been inserted into the legislation "in the middle of the night" Tuesday on using "soft money" to pay off "hard money" debt.

Fleischer and House GOP opponents of the legislation identified a provision on page 79 of the bill they said would allow political parties to use unregulated "soft money" to pay off otherwise regulated "hard money" debt -- creating a campaign finance "back door" that would render the whole bill meaningless.

"The president wants to sign something that will improve the system," Fleischer said. "The president hopes that the House will take the appropriate action."

The text of the bill says parties can use "such funds to retire outstanding debts or obligations incurred solely in connection with an election held on or before Nov. 5, 2002." Supporters and opponents of the bill disagreed on whether that provision would allow the use of "soft money" to pay off "hard money" debt.

The House agreed later to fix any apparent confusion on that issue and close any possible loophole.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Reformers won that final vote just before 3 a.m., 240-189. Soft money is the term used for unregulated funds contributors make to political parties. During a marathon day of debate that started Wednesday morning, supporters of the Shays-Meehan bill successfully...
Thursday, 14 February 2002 12:00 AM
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