House approves campaign finance overhaul
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House voted early Thursday to overhaul how federal campaigns are financed, after marathon debate pitting arguments of free speech and political expression against criticism that the money chase has tainted American politics.
The 240-189 vote sends the measure to the Senate.
"The moment of truth has come," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Massachusetts, one of the authors of what is dubbed the Shays-Meehan bill, which would ban "soft money" contributions to national political parties and place restrictions on some political TV ads for 60 days before a general election.
"After overcoming every obstacle that the leadership could possibly construct, the House will vote on real campaign finance reform," Meehan said during the debate, which began Wednesday and continued into the early morning hours of Thursday.
The bill passed a key test when two other versions of campaign finance reform were rejected in afternoon votes. The Shays-Meehan measure was cleared 240-191 as the bill to consider for amendments and the one that ultimately was be voted on.
The Shays-Meehan bill bans corporations, unions and individuals from making unregulated soft-money donations to national parties. State and local parties could, however, still raise such funds for get-out-the-vote efforts.
Such donations reach into the millions of dollars each election year, and critics say they have corrupted the political system by giving undue influence to the wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and other groups that make them.
"Over the years, these huge contributions have come into the system and politics in most Americans' eyes today is more about money and big money than anything else, and it has to change," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri.
The House considered a a number of amendments, some that critics said were designed to ultimately kill the bill or make it so different from the already-passed Senate version -- known as the McCain-Feingold legislation -- that the two measures could never be reconciled.
Differences between the House and Senate bills would force the legislation into a conference committee, where GOP leaders who oppose it could prevent it from resurfacing.
Some Republicans say they oppose Shays-Meehan because it was crafted to favor Democratic candidates. Opponents also contend the measure limits free speech, particularly by placing restrictions on political advertising.
Wednesday's House debate began on a familiar note, with lawmakers reprising arguments they made last summer when the bill was last up for debate before it was shelved.
"This bill doesn't contain real reform," said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the majority whip. "Instead, this bill strips citizens of their political rights and unconstitutionally attempts to regulate political speech."
But Meehan insisted the limitation on what are known as television "issues" ads in the days before an election would not infringe free speech, but it would bring more accountability to the campaign process.
Issue ads often help or hurt political candidates, even though they do not explicitly name candidates and are not supposed to endorse any one candidate over another.
Republican opponents of Shays-Meehan also seized on what they described as a loophole inserted into the bill Tuesday night.
They said one provision would allow national committees of the parties to use soft money to pay outstanding debts or obligations incurred before any new restrictions become law.
"This is exactly the opposite of what this legislation is intended to do," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Virginia.
At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer called the provision "an unfair, unwise and unwarranted change" and said it should be stripped from the bill.
Supporters of Shays-Meehan said the provision is not a loophole and is not meant to change current law.
"It does not do what they say it does," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland.
Supporters said the focus on the provision amounted to a last-ditch effort to kill the bill
Bush weighs in
President Bush weighed in on the debate, telling reporters he wants to sign a campaign finance reform bill that "that improves the system" and one that takes effect immediately.
Democrats, however, do not want the measure to take effect until after the November elections, and Bush's comments may embolden GOP leaders to seek changes in the measure.
"It's making its way through the system, and I'll give it a good look," Bush said.
Earlier, the White House gave the clearest indication to date that Bush would sign the bill if it reaches his desk, even though he disagrees with some components.
Fleischer said "improving the system" is the president's bottom line and the leading congressional proposals meet that test, despite provisions Bush does not like.
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