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KWAME HOLMAN: In a House office building early this morning, Democrats came together in hopes a united front would win a final victory for the main campaign finance bill most Democrats have supported for years– most Democrats, but not all.
REP. BART STUPAK: In the past I haven’t supported it, despite my Democratic Party being in favor of it because I didn’t think it was fair. But this has come much closer to fairness. I think it has matured over the couple of years here. I think we got a pretty good bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Republicans generally have opposed the bill known as Shays-Meehan. After their strategy session, they were prepared to stop Shays-Meehan and its ban on so- called soft money political donations by any means available.
REP. TOM REYNOLDS: There’s people of both parties that don’t want to see the destruction of our national parties, and that’s what this bill does.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, leaders of the campaign overhaul effort from both parties met in a room in the Capitol on the way to what was expected to be long hours of legislative in-fighting on the House floor.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I do not think this helps either political party. It does help the American people. It puts politics back into the hands of individual Americans and takes it away from the wealthy, well-heeled special interests.
KWAME HOLMAN: As soon as members got to the floor, Republicans wasted no time challenging Shays-Meehan. They charged last-minute changes made to the bill didn’t meet the requirements of the so-called "discharge petition" that forced Republican leaders to bring the bill up for a vote.
MARK FOLEY: Does the bill as presented under the rule comply with the dictates of the discharge petition, or are we operating under a substitute version?
JOHN LEWIS: We are operating under the terms of House Resolution 344.
MARK FOLEY: Further inquiry.
JOHN LEWIS: A motion to adjourn has been offered. It is not debatable. The question occurs on the motion to adjourn —
KWAME HOLMAN: The House did not adjourn and the campaign finance principals settled into a spirited back and forth. Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan, half of the Shays-Meehan bill’s sponsorship, had a prediction on his bill.
REP. MARTY MEEHAN: We’re going to debate it until 3:00 AM if we need to, and we’re going to win in the end.
KWAME HOLMAN: In accordance with rules agreed to last night, the House would consider Shays- Meehan and two other campaign overhaul bills. The first was offered by Majority Leader Dick Armey on behalf of the Republican leadership.
REP. DICK ARMEY: Mr. Chairman, in light of the days debate that I anticipate will feature a great deal of self-flagellation and tacit indictment of one another, let me state at the outset I am not now, never have been, nor ever will be corrupted by contributions to my campaign in soft or hard money. At least do us the courtesy of giving us the benefit of the doubt with respect to the suspicion that we’re not total idiots.
REPRESENTATIVE: Will my friend yield?
REP. DICK ARMEY: You’re either for a ban on soft money or you’re not. No, I have no time to yield. You’re either for a ban on soft money now or you’re not. You’re either for tricks and gimmicks, exceptions and loopholes, or you’re not. If you’re for a real ban now, vote for Armey.
KWAME HOLMAN: Armey called his plan "Ban it All, Ban it Now." It would end all soft money contributions– the unregulated unlimited donations now given to the political parties by corporations, unions and individuals. But the Armey bill would go further and ban such contributions to private advocacy groups involved in federal elections. Georgia Republican John Linder faced off with Michigan Democrat Sander Levin over the Republican alternative.
REP. JOHN LINDER: This bill was essentially introduced in March of last year. Both parties raised about the same amount of soft money, about $245 million in the last cycle. And we should ban it all. And those who don’t want to ban it all don’t want to ban it. If you want simply to curb some soft money but not all, support Shays-Meehan. If you want to simply marginally reduce corporate, union, and special-interest loopholes, support Shays-Meehan. If you want to nibble around the edges of this debate year after year after year, then Shays- Meehan is the bill for you. But if you want a complete and total ban on every dollar of soft money involved in federal election advocacy today, then join me and Dick Armey and support this substitute. Join us. Ban it all, ban it now.
REP. SANDER LEVIN: What we are seeing here are tactics to obscure the issue. Shays-Meehan does not nibble around the edges of soft money. It is absurd to talk that way. What it tries to do is to preserve the democratic processes of registration in getting out the vote. And what does the Armey amendment do? What it essentially says is no one can use even their own funds to help register people or get them out to vote, whether its the NAACP, or the NRA, or anybody else. Nobody can use any of their own treasury money. It’s anti-democratic. What it is, is a smokescreen, and we can see through it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Around lunchtime, the Armey plan went down, with 44 Republicans joining almost all Democrats to defeat it. The next campaign overhaul plan was offered by Ohio Republican Bob Ney. Last summer he proposed capping soft money rather than eliminating it. Today, he dropped that idea and proposed an earlier, more restrictive version of Shays- Meehan, which the authors changed last summer in order to attract votes.
REP. BOB NEY: Well, the substitute I offer today is the bill that this House has passed previously. I offer it not because I think it’s really a good bill and not because I really want to particularly see it passed. On the contrary, I think this is a bad piece of legislation. We’re not playing games anymore. As some have said, we’re now shooting with real bullets. The legislation that passes this House is very likely to reach the President’s desk and become law. Given that, I think it is important to give members the opportunity to enact legislation that they previously supported on this floor.
KWAME HOLMAN: But members disagreed with Ney and voted down his idea. As it became increasingly clear Shays-Meehan would be the bill of the day, members focused their attention there.
REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: If there is a bill in Congress that affects the every day American somebody can spend $10 million to either party and you’ll never convince me that doesn’t affect the quality of legislation. I’m ready and willing to do something about it even if I have to argue and disagree with the people I hold dear personally and professionally. I think America needs to change the way we conduct our campaigns. And I’m willing to pay a price for making my friends mad at me.
REP. JOHN DOOLITTLE: I just want to say the disastrous present law we have was given to us by the same liberals who are now bringing to us an updated version in the Shays-Meehan bill. This law was rammed through in 1974 by liberal Democrats on the far left of the think tanks to try and take advantage of Republicans through the law and make it harder for them to campaign. It worked. It took us 20 additional years before we won the House of Representatives as a result of that law. If this disastrous bill passes today unamended, I suspect we’ll have another 20 years in the trenches before we ever come back.
KWAME HOLMAN: The vote on the Shays Meehan ban on political soft money ended late this afternoon. 39 Republicans joined 200 Democrats and one independent to approve the bill.