WASHINGTON – After over 16 hours of debate, six Maryland legislators voted early Thursday to support a campaign finance reform bill that would ban unregulated “soft money” donations to national political party committees.
The Shays-Meehan bill passed shortly before 3 a.m. Thursday by a margin of 240-189, with 41 Republicans joining 198 Democrats in support of the bill.
In Maryland, Republican Reps. Connie Morella and Wayne Gilchrest sided with the state’s four Democrats in support of the measure. Rep. Al Wynn, D- Largo, had been a leading opponent of the bill, but ultimately voted for it after his attempt to amend the measure failed.
Maryland Republican Reps. Robert Ehrlich of Timonium and Roscoe Bartlett of Frederick voted against the final version of the bill. Bartlett said the bill does not go far enough to ban soft money.
“I do believe that money is poisoning politics and I support limiting it. However, Shays-Meehan was not a solution to this problem, it would only make it worse,” he said.
The final vote came after a marathon debate filled with heated discussion and complex legislative maneuvering on both sides of the aisle.
“This was a hard-fought battle with a lot of misinformation flying around about this bill,” said Gilchrest, of Kennedyville. “It’s always tough to ask members of Congress to police themselves, but the American people have begun to lose faith in our system, and anything we can do to restore integrity to our electoral process is critical.”
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., bans contributions of “soft money” to national party committees. While donations to individual candidates are limited, there is currently no cap on the amount that can be given to national parties to spend as they see fit.
The measure would cap soft-money contributions to state parties at $10,000. It would also raise the “hard money” contributions limit from $1,000 to $2,000 for House candidates, allow even higher contributions to candidates facing wealthy opponents, and restrict broadcast “issue ads” if they featured a federal candidate. Such ads would have to be paid for with hard money and could not be broadcast within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.
Opponents of the bill, led by Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, attempted to kill the measure with a series of “poison pill” amendments that would have forced it into a conference committee with the Senate, which has already passed a similar measure. If the bill had been relegated to conference, opponents could have gutted its key components.
Wynn could not be reached Thursday to comment on his decision to vote for the bill after opposing it.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, who led supporters of the bill on the House floor, said he hopes the Senate can pass the measure and send it to President Bush for his approval. Morella agreed.
“Though last night was a great victory, we need to continue to push to get the Senate to act on this as soon as possible,” the Bethesda Republican said Thursday.
Soft-money reform still faces a possible Senate filibuster. The Senate version of the bill passed with 59 votes, one shy of the number needed break a filibuster.
Even if the bill does pass the Senate, it is not clear whether President Bush will sign it.
“It all depends on what action the Senate takes,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday. “So I think it’s a little early to get declarative, but the president has sent a very clear signal to the Congress that he wants to sign something that improves the system.”
If the president signs the reforms into law, Democrats would stand to suffer significantly more than Republicans. Democrats got $63 million in soft money donations, or 53.5 percent of their total donations in 2001. While Republicans received more in soft money donations, $72 million, it accounted for just 35.2 percent of their total donations in 2001.