WASHINGTON – Supporters of campaign-finance legislation that would ban "soft money" announced Thursday that they had successfully collected the signatures required to force a vote on the House floor.
"The American people deserve a full debate about how campaigns are financed," said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who provided the 218th and decisive signature on a legislative petition forcing the vote.
The bill, which if enacted would make the most far-reaching changes in the nation's political campaign-finance system since the Watergate reforms of a quarter-century ago, would ban unregulated, unlimited money earmarked to a political party rather than to a specific candidate — "soft" rather than "hard" money. It would also raise the limit on how much money an individual could contribute to a campaign.
It also contains a controversial measure that would ban certain types of campaign advertising within 60 days of an election. The Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional to ban advertising paid for by special-interest groups.
This last measure caused the bill, which otherwise enjoys bipartisan support in both chambers, to be blocked in the 435-member House by a procedural vote after it passed the Senate 59-41 in April.
Supporters of campaign finance reform argue that changes are needed to prevent special interests from buying access to the parties' agendas through soft money, a point made by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt when he cited President Bush's relationship with collapsed energy giant Enron Corp.
"If the world's biggest bankruptcy joined at the hip with the administration’s biggest contributors isn't a prime case for campaign finance reform, I don’t know what is," Gephardt said in announcing the petition. Enron, which filed for bankruptcy last month and is now subject to several congressional and criminal investigations for accounting practices preceding its collapse, gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to candidates and parties throughout the last decade.
Gephardt made no mention of Enron's donations to and help from the Clinton administration or to Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Instead, he seemed to complain that despite contributions to the Bush administration, the company got nothing.
"The real scandal here may not be what the administration did to help Enron, but what it avoided doing because it was concerned that the campaign contributions create the appearance of conflict," he said.
The White House has done its best to deflect criticism of a cozy relationship between the White House and Enron's CEO Kenneth Lay, who resigned Wednesday. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said the White House would do everything in its power to investigate the fall of the nation's seventh-largest corporation.
While Enron may have been the impetus to get the last-needed signatures on the petition to drive the bill to the floor, opponents of campaign finance reform legislation still argue that banning soft money would only divert the unlimited money coming from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions, not block it.
They also say that restricting contributions, as well as advertisements, is restricting free speech.
In June, a U.S. federal district judge ruled it unconstitutional for the state of Alaska to ban soft money from labor unions and corporations, a decision some say might be a harbinger for the fate of the current legislation if it becomes law.
No date was immediately set for debate and vote on the bill.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.