GOP delays campaign finance debate

Friday, March 27, 1998

Concerned they might lose control of the issue on the House floor, Republicans postponed action on campaign finance reform Thursday night until after lawmakers return in April from a scheduled three-week break.

“They don't have the votes to move forward now. That's pretty obvious,'' said Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of a group of Republican lawmakers favoring more stringent controls on campaign spending than the party's leadership is willing to back.

With a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the GOP leadership crafted legislation with provisions curtailing union political activity, raising contribution limits and banning large, loosely regulated donations that flow to the national political parties. The measure also would allow local election officials to try to verify the citizenship of prospective voters.

That bill was given little chance of passage, since some of its provisions offended Democrats, while others drew opposition from Republicans.

Generally, Democrats disagree with a measure to require unions to give individual members the right to decide whether their dues may be used for political activity, saying it's designed to interfere with the AFL-CIO's long-standing support for their parties. Many Republicans challenge contribution limits on grounds that such restrictions violate First Amendment speech rights.

But GOP leaders were also concerned they would lose key procedural votes on the floor, opening the way to passage of legislation backed by Democrats and reform-minded Republicans that would have stripped out the union provision and extended the ban on so-called soft money to include state parties, as well, meaning it wouldn't be available for congressional elections.

“If our guys won't commit to us on the procedural votes, we're not putting in [the bill] on the floor,'' Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said at one point during the day.

Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., met privately with Shays and other GOP supporters of curbs on campaign spending in the early evening. An aide said later that the decision had been made to wait until at least April or May to give lawmakers the time to “continue to work with the campaign finance (reform) supporters,'' as well as with Senate leaders.

–First Amendment Center staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.