WASHINGTON - The House yesterday dealt a major blow to efforts to overhaul the nation's campaign-finance laws and curb the influence of big money in politics.
At the end of a long day of hurried meetings and shifting strategies, Democrats and Republicans angrily blamed each other for scuttling reform.
By early evening, Democrats and an unusual coalition of 19 Republicans voted, 228-203, not to bring competing campaign-finance bills to the floor under the procedures for debate set by Republican leaders.
“Obviously, we're very disappointed that we didn't have an opportunity to get fair consideration of the .. bill,'' said Rep. Martin Meehan (D., Mass.), a major proponent of the bill preferred by most Democrats. “All we want is a fair vote, up or down, on campaign finance reform.''
Mr. Meehan and Rep. Chris Shays (R., Conn.) sponsored a bill that would ban virtually all unregulated contributions to national and state political parties, which is allowed under a loophole to federal laws that passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Mr. Meehan, Mr. Shays, and their allies contend such donations give corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals too much influence over politics, corrupting the system and breeding public cynicism.
But Democrats argued that the debate procedures established by Republicans would unfairly fracture a set of modifications to the Shays-Meehan bill, diluting the measure and jeopardizing its chance of passage.
They demanded a straight up-or-down vote on their bill and were joined by a group of Republicans ranging from moderates such as Mr. Shays to conservatives such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Republicans, in turn, accused Democrats of killing a campaign-finance overhaul simply because they did not have enough votes to prevail on the bill they favored.
“The point is the Democrats are bringing down the rule [for debate] because they don't have the votes to pass the bill,'' said Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House leadership.
House GOP leaders had vehemently objected to the Shays-Meehan bill and its Senate counterpart, which sponsors John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D., Wis.) had pushed to victory earlier this year.
Instead, House Republican leaders promoted an alternative bill crafted by Rep. Bob Ney (R., Ohio). Mr. Ney's bill would limit, but not ban, unregulated contributions to national political parties and would impose no limits on contributions to state parties.
Last night, GOP leaders portrayed themselves as eager to debate both bills and blamed House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D., Mo.) for thwarting their efforts.
“Mr. Gephardt doesn't want the result. He'd rather have the issue as a campaign issue,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.). “It's sad. It's in our view wrong-minded.''
Local House members voted along party lines.
Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) voted not to move forward under the established procedures.
Mr. Tiberi had been courted by both sides. Senator McCain had campaigned for him, but Mr. Tiberi said that he would not vote for the Shays-Meehan bill and was considering Mr. Ney's bill instead.
Yesterday's outcome appears to stifle House action on a campaign-finance overhaul in the immediate future.
“I have no plan to bring this bill up now,'' Mr. Hastert said, noting that the House had a busy schedule and that he already had set aside a day to debate a campaign-finance overhaul. Mr. Hastert said that Republicans will spend the summer moving through the rest of their agenda, including debate on a patients' bill of rights.
But the bill's supporters vowed to press forward and called for House action as early as next week. Senator McCain raised the possibility that House Democrats could try to muster enough support to lift their bill out of committee and send it directly to the floor.
“We're going to win this thing,'' Sen. Feingold said. “We're going to win it this year.''
Rep. Zach Wamp (R., Tenn.) added: “Nineteen Republicans stood against our party today on principle so that we could live to fight another day.''
The House passed a similar Shays-Meehan bill 252-177 in 1999, but Republican leaders killed Senator McCain's version in the Senate.
This time, the stakes were higher for House Republican leaders. The Senate passed Senator McCain's bill earlier this year, and President Bush had told House leaders they cannot count on his veto.
Supporters said last night's procedural vote took place after a near-deal fell apart.
House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R., Texas) had taken the floor to mock Mr. Shays, a fellow Republican, for “complaining that we are not being fair with his bill. What more could the rules committee have done?''
Even as Mr. Armey spoke, the Democrats put out word that GOP leaders, faced with defections from Republican moderates, were prepared to accede to Democrats' demands.
But after Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting, they returned to their original strategy for debate.
“When we went downstairs, leadership withdrew their offer,'' Mr. Shays said.
Democrats then defeated the Republicans' chosen procedure, and a day of intense lobbying by both sides ended with no debate on either bill.
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