WASHINGTON — After 10 weeks of sporadic and sometimes caustic debate, a majority of the House Monday night defied the Republican leadership and voted for a bipartisan bill that would overhaul the way the nation’s political campaigns are financed.
The relatively strong 237-186 showing for the measure, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., makes it likely that it will be the one to prevail against several competing proposals still to be considered. Fifty-one Republicans broke with their party leadership to support the bill, while only 11 Democrats bucked their party to vote against it.
“As members of the House you get an opportunity very few times in your career to make a historic vote,” Meehan said. “This was a historic vote.”
Uncertain of the outcome, even as the vote began, House members — including Speaker Newt Gingrich — stood in the cavernous House chamber staring up at the large electronic board that shows each vote as it is cast. Gingrich, who by custom usually does not vote, this time voted no. As support for the legislation surged past a majority, cheers and applause erupted on the Democratic side of the chamber.
The Shays-Meehan legislation would effectively ban the unlimited, unregulated donations to the political parties — or “soft money” — that led to the abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign. The bill also would curb issue advocacy commercials by outside groups in the 60-day period before an election.
To get to Monday night’s vote, the bill’s sponsors had to surmount months of challenges as the Republican leadership first tried to block the legislation from the floor and then tried to subject it to scores of amendments designed to fracture the bill’s coalition. Despite the House’s endorsement Monday night of the legislation, the Senate is considered unlikely to take up campaign finance legislation before it recesses in October.
Recapitulating weeks of late night debate, the House one more time Monday clashed over whether the bill’s limit on political fund raising would restore integrity to a political process drowning in special interest money or whether it would limit free speech and alter the balance of power between the political parties.
Trying to prevent any last-minute Democratic defections, the two senior Democratic leaders of the House took part in the closing debate to make impassioned pleas for the legislation.
“There is a national crisis of confidence in our system of campaign financing,” said Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader. “It is a crisis of confidence that cuts across party lines and should disturb all of us as Democrats, as Republicans, as Americans.”
Several Republicans argued that their party — which has had a traditional fund-raising advantage — would be hurt because the measure does not prevent organized labor, which generally backs Democrats, from devoting union dues to political campaigns.
“To my Republican colleagues, let me just simply say this is not reform,” said Rep. Tom DeLay, the House majority whip. “This is not good government. This is political disarmament. It does nothing to protect union members from forced union dues while putting shackles on our traditional supporters.” He accused some Republicans of voting for the measure simply because they thought the Senate would be sure to kill it.
The bipartisan coalition backing Shays-Meehan countered by turning to a conservative member of the rebellious Republican Class of 1994 to make their closing argument. “Vote yes on this bill,” implored Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. “It’s the moment of truth. The truth is this bill is as fair to Republicans as Democrats.”
Despite Monday night’s vote, the Shays-Meehan bill still faces a few more hurdles to win final House passage under a byzantine voting process in which 11 different overhaul proposals have been pitted against one other. The measure moves to a final vote only if none of the nine plans still standing obtain a larger majority. Voting is expected to continue later this week.
Because of the strong showing for the Shays-Meehan legislation, Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., said he would withdraw his own proposal. Others were expected to do the same.
But Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., made clear Monday night he would still be fighting to pass another bipartisan plan which he drew up with other House freshman. The measure contains a less stringent ban on soft money.
Even if the Shays-Meehan bill passes the House, its chances are considered remote in the Senate, where Sen. Trent Lott, the majority leader, has made clear he does not want to consider it in the closing weeks of the session leading into the midterm elections.
Earlier this year a companion bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., died when it won majority support but not the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.