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A House Divided: Campaign Finance Reform

July 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Members of the House of Representatives went into yesterday’s showdown on campaign finance reform unwilling to predict what might happen. They left six hours later unable to predict what might happen next. What happened in between was about as close to hand-to-hand combat as is allowed in the halls of Congress.

SPOKESMAN: This was hardball politics today.

KWAME HOLMAN: Before the House were two competing campaign finance reform plans. Shays-Meehan, the mostly Democratic backed proposal, virtually would outlaw soft money contributions. Most Republicans called portions of the bill unconstitutional. They offered a less restrictive alternative sponsored by bob nay of Ohio. Efforts to lobby wavering members continued right into the debate and neither side could be confident they had the votes to win. But House Republican leaders had an advantage: Control of the House Rules Committee led by its chairman David Dreier. Late Wednesday night, Drier and the committee drew up rules for the campaign finance debate that left Congressmen Shays and Meehan crying foul.

REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: We should have had the opportunity to present to the committee and have an up or down vote on the bill that we agreed to. But technicalities being used to defeat campaign finance reform.

KWAME HOLMAN: Committee Republicans had divided the Shays-Meehan bill into amendments requiring 14 separate votes. They said those reflected recent changes Shays and Meehan had made to their bill.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: We knew that the fix was on and that this was designed to be a process that would simply not provide for fair debate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hearing of shays complaints, Majority Leader Dick Armey came to the House floor to criticize his fellow Republican.

REP. RICHARD ARMEY: Let me pledge right now that should at any time ever in the future of my life as a legislator, I have a Rules Committee that is generous enough to give me, out of 145 requests, 14 of the 20 requests that are honored as amendments to my own bill, I will save myself the indignity of protesting the unfairness of it all. Don’t tell me that I am being treated unfairly when I have been given 14 separate opportunities to amend my own bill. That is unreasonable. That is arrogant.

REPORTER: Your reaction to the harsh words that Dick Armey said about you on the floor?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: He didn’t mean it. (Laughter)

KWAME HOLMAN: Yet even as Armey was speaking, other Republican leaders were counting defections from their ranks as a vote on the rule approached. Tennessee’s Zach Wamp is a longtime backer of campaign reform.

REP. ZACH WAMP: You know, it makes me sad that my party, that I vote with and support on so many good things of change and reform and bringing about a better America, and I ended up today on opposite sides. But I do think this is like a family in the Republican Party and when families go into business together, it seems like they can’t get along near as well because money is involved. And money is involved here and sure enough it splits up families.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican leaders faced a problem. If the rule went down, the House could not debate and vote on the reform bills themselves. And Republicans might be accused of killing the legislation. So they offered to compromise.

REP. DAVID DREIER: We fashioned a rule and it is quite possible that we could, as we have discussed with your side, propose a modification to the rule.

KWAME HOLMAN: Action on the floor was suspended for two hours as House Republicans took to a conference room in the Capitol to wait out the negotiations. Majority Whip Tom DeLay said House Speaker Dennis Hastert was involved personally.

REP. TOM DeLAY: The Speaker negotiated with Mr. Shays and gave Mr. Shays everything he wanted from the beginning, and Mr. Shays went to Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Gephardt rejected it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Minority Leader Dick Gephardt feared Republicans still might spring a surprise amendment.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I asked for two hours. I said, “can you give us two hours before that amendment comes up, so that we can read it and understand it and be able to talk to our members about what it says and to try to organize to vote against it.” If it was a bad amendment. I don’t know what the amendment was going to be.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican members reportedly felt they could negotiate no more. So despite the prospect of seeing the rule fail, they moved it to a vote late in the afternoon.

SPOKESMAN: On this question the yays are 203 — the nays of 228. The negotiation it is not agreed to. >> The finger pointing began.

REPORTER: There is not one of you up here in favor of the Shays-Meehan bill and not one of you up here displeased with the fact that there is no campaign finance reform bill out of the House.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Let me set the record straight. I made the commitment to bring campaign finance reform to the floor of the House of Representatives: To get the bill out of committee in a timely basis and to have this day as a day to debate the bill. It was very clear if you look at the facts, and if you’re intellectually honest with the facts, you’ll find that the people who brought down the rules when the bill came to the floor was the Democrat leadership of the House of Representatives. Thank you very much.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, they always look for scapegoats when they fail to do something, and this is another case. They do this too often in my view. They ought to just address the merits of whether this was a fair process. 19 Republicans voted with us that this was not a fair process. I can’t get Republicans, usually, to vote with us, in case you haven’t noticed. I think that’s the answer to this untrue charge. I mean, if the Republicans who favor this bill thought this was a fair process, they would’ve voted for the rule and they did not.

KWAME HOLMAN: Speaker of the House Hastert said he has no plans to return to campaign finance reform but Christopher Shays say he and other supporters are prepared to block other legislation until the Shays-Meehan bill is finally brought to a vote.