WASHINGTON – House supporters of limiting campaign spending are within reach of trying to force a vote on the issue, aided by 15 Republicans defying their own leaders.
In just one week before Congress left for its August recess, 205 House members signed a discharge petition. That is a rarely used procedure for bringing a bill to the House floor when the chamber's leaders are unwilling to do so.
Supporters of the campaign finance legislation by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., need only 13 more signers to achieve their goal of 218, a majority of the House and the figure needed to force action on their petition.
"I'm energized by the remarkable progress in such a short period of time," Meehan said. He noted that it took six months to reach a similar level in a 1998 petition drive.
"We thought 185 would be great" for the first week, Shays said. "Over 200 is fantastic." He said he expected four or five more Republicans to sign on and "when we get back in September we'll have our 13."
Over Congress' August vacation, Meehan and Shays, as well as the sponsors of the parallel Senate bill, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., will be calling colleagues they feel are most likely to join their cause. Groups such as Common Cause and the Sierra Club will also be trying to drum up support for the biggest change in campaign spending rules in a quarter-century.
Discharge petitions are uncommon because of the reluctance to go against one's own party leaders. The last successful discharge petition came in 1994, when lawmakers forced the Democrats then in control of the House to give them a vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
But Shays-Meehan supporters decided they had no other option after a chaotic day last month when they voted to reject rules for debating campaign finance legislation, which they said were slanted to ensure the defeat of their bill. Most Republicans backed a more modest alternative that limited but did not ban "soft money."
The Shays-Meehan bill would effectively ban the unregulated "soft money" that accounted for nearly $500 million in donations from corporations, unions and individuals to national parties in the last election. The bill would also ban certain types of political broadcast advertising in the 60 days before an election, a provision that would apply to many special interest groups.
Shays and Meehan also resorted to discharge petitions in 1998 and 1999, each time coming close enough to force the Republican speaker, first Newt Gingrich and then Dennis Hastert, to give them a vote. The 205 signatures collected this year already outnumber the 204 in 1998 and 202 in 1999.
But this time it is unclear whether Hastert, R-Ill., will give in before the petitioners get the full 218. The stakes are higher now, because the Senate passed its version of campaign finance limits in April, vastly increasing the chances that the legislation could become law.
Currently, there are 222 Republicans, 210 Democrats, two independents and one vacancy in the House.
"It is a matter ... the American people, frankly, are very little interested in," the House's second-ranking Republican, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, said Sunday.
President Bush, while not a supporter of the soft money ban, has indicated he would sign the bill.
"I will watch and see what happens," Hastert said Friday when asked if he might agree to a vote before the 218 threshold is reached. "I haven't made that decision yet."
"The only way is to get 218," Meehan said.
So far, Shays and 14 other Republicans have signed the petition, compared with the 19 Republicans who joined Democrats in defeating the rules for debate last month.
The petition has also been signed by 25 of the 36 voting members of the Congressional Black Caucus. One member, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., signed the petition but then withdrew his name. Clay said in a statement that the process was "a dead end" and he did not support the bill because it would "curtail party-building and get-out-the-vote drives, which often sustain those candidates who cannot raise large amounts of hard money."
Some members of the caucus are cool to the Shays-Meehan bill because it ignores public financing of elections and, they feel, the ban on soft money could hurt candidates in minority districts. Their support is crucial to both the petition drive and passage of the bill.