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Campaign finance reform dies in House for now

By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives aborted its planned campaign finance reform debate Thursday, dropping the two measures on a procedural vote before either one reached the floor.

The chamber rejected 228-203 a procedural resolution that would have set the parameters for the debate, effectively putting the issue on the shelf at least through the autumn -- and perhaps longer.

Eighteen Republicans joined the Democrats to turn the rule back. Only one Democrat voted to move to general debate on the bills.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, speaking to reporters as the vote was called, accused Democrats and their handful of Republican supporters of acting to "scuttle" the bill.

Supporters of a bill that would ban the "soft money" variety of campaign donations to the major parties accused the House Republican leadership of trying to derail their bill's progress using parliamentary procedures -- namely, by crafting a set of rules for debate they said were designed to put them at a disadvantage.

House members react to Thursday's vote
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"The American people want a fair vote on this, and we hope that the leadership provides us that opportunity as soon as possible -- preferably next week, said the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Martin Meehan.

The House Rules Committee voted late Wednesday night on the guidelines for Thursday's scheduled debate. Those rules broke apart a package of adjustments to the Shays-Meehan bill opposed by the chamber's GOP leadership.

Meehan, D-Massachusetts, and co-sponsor Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, said the adjustments were written not only to make the bill more palatable to swing voters in the House, but also to align it with the wishes of the Senate, which passed its own bill in April.

According to the rule, the adjustments would have to be voted on as amendments, one by one, resulting in 20 or more floor votes -- and a very long day and night.

Shays and Meehan and their supporters in the Democratic leadership urged backers of the bill to vote against the rule. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, called it "a 22-point obstacle course."

Republicans, meanwhile, characterized Shays, Meehan and most of the House Democrats as sore sports, saying they were trying to cut off debate because they did not have enough votes in the closely divided chamber.

"In the end, the Democrats said unless they could have a guaranteed victory of a bill that would be nothing other than a rubber stamp of the McCain bill, they would rather have no consideration of that issue," said Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. "That may be good politics, but its certainly not legislation."

Shays has wanted to see his bill become law for three years. The House approved earlier versions of the Shays-Meehan bill in 1998 and 1999. But this year he was challenged by a viable alternative bill supported by the House GOP leadership -- and the Bush White House -- that would limit, but not ban, soft money donations.

The alternative bill, created by Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Albert Wynn, D-Maryland, would cap such donations at $75,000.

Ney argued his bill was a "reasonable alternative" to the Shays-Meehan legislation, which he said was undergoing constant changes in language to make it more appealing to a broad swath of members.

"This is a good, responsible bill," Ney said. "People are starting to become confused about what Shays-Meehan is anymore."

Shays-Meehan resembles the bill drafted by Republican maverick John McCain and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, that passed the Senate in April.

As would the McCain-Feingold bill, Shays-Meehan would for the most part ban unregulated, soft-money donations to the major parties. Shays, McCain and their colleagues argue that as long as corporations and special interests are allowed to donate millions in soft money, the contributors will be able to exert undue influence on important pieces of legislation.

Ney, meanwhile, says the parties use soft money for admirable purposes, including voter registration efforts.

"Soft money" is the term used to describe the unlimited amounts of cash that may be pledged by individuals or by organizations to the parties. The money is to be used, according to federal election guidelines, for "party-building" purposes, but McCain and others have argued for years that it often is used to benefit individual candidates.

The McCain-Feingold bill and its companion bill in the House would set limits on so-called issue ads -- political advertisements ostensibly about an issue but that have the practical effect of hurting or helping a specific candidate. McCain and his supporters argue that a large percentage of soft money donations are spent on such radio and television spots.

McCain and Feingold initially sought to have issue ads banned entirely, but a compromise provision inserted into their bill during Senate consideration now calls for a moratorium on the distribution of such ads 60 days out from Election Day.

That is where Ney and Wynn feel they can knock down McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan, at least as far as undecided House members are concerned. Ney has referred to the 60-day language as a "gag clause," saying it amounts to a squelching of free speech.

The Ney-Wynn bill would allow television and radio ads to continue up to election day, but beginning 120 days out the ad would have to disclose who was responsible for its creation.

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