Thanks to 51 renegade Republicans - including Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah - bucking leaders, the House on Monday passed a controversial campaign reform bill.
But that bill - which would ban unlimited "soft money" that donors may give to parties (which were blamed for abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign) and would limit ads by advocacy groups near election dates - still has far to go to become law.It is one of 10 rival reform bills that the House is expected to consider this week - and rules call for the one receiving the most votes to become the final version. Less stringent reform could gain more votes later this week.
Even if the bill that passed Monday survives in the House, the Senate may not vote on any reform because Majority Leader Trent Lott says its calendar is too full for the rest of the year to consider reform bills and because the Senate failed to break a GOP filibuster on a similar bill earlier this year.
Critics say, therefore, the House votes are meaningless ways to provide incumbents a chance to say they supported some sort of reform before elections this year.
The House voted 237-186 for the reform bill pushed by Reps. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass. The 51 GOP renegades joined 185 Democrats and one independent to pass it.
Cook was among the renegades, while Reps. Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon, R-Utah, voted against the bill.
However, Cook said, "I don't see the vote as bucking leadership." While he acknowledges leaders didn't support it, he said they were divided on their degree of opposition - and how stringently they insisted other Republicans fall in line.
But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was adamant in insisting the bill the would undermine political parties, threaten freedom of political speech and create new loopholes.
"This is not reform. This is not good government. This is political disarmament," DeLay said.
House leaders also had fought the bill for months with a variety of parliamentary procedures that weakened its chances, including votes on numerous "killer" amendments, and once allowing a vote on it under rules that required a two-thirds vote for passage.
But Cook said he favors the bill because it "has two key elements that I have campaigned on and worked hard on as a member of the bipartisan freshman task force on campaign reform. One is banning soft money that allows loopholes around current donation limits . . . when donors can give huge amounts (to parties) and direct it with a wink and a nod to help a federal candidate."
He said the bill also incorporates provisions of a bill he introduced to require the Federal Election Commission to quickly post on the Internet all financial disclosure statements it receives from candidates - a practice it already largely adopted.
Ironically, Cook is co-author of a rival bill by the freshman task force that is seen as having the best chance of beating out the Shays-Meehan bill as the House's final version - but Cook says he now actually likes Shays-Meehan better.
The freshmen's bill would also ban federal soft money but not block soft money given to state parties. "Chris Shays makes a good case that unless you close federal and state soft money, you don't close the loophole," Cook said.
Cook also bristles at criticism that the current debate is only to provide political cover for House incumbents on campaign reform because the Senate is unlikely to act on anything it passes.
"Shays-Meehan passed with higher numbers than anyone thought possible a few weeks ago. I think that momentum gives it a chance in the Senate," Cook said. "Just because the Senate sometimes doesn't act doesn't mean that's a good reason not to do something here in the House."