WASHINGTON — Hoping to light a fire under House Speaker Dennis Hastert and members of the Senate, a bipartisan group of congressmen led by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., on Thursday provided a united front on campaign finance reform, saying that it would be “a terrible mistake” to prolong the effort any further.

At a Capitol Hill news conference attended by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., and others, lawmaker after lawmaker challenged Hastert to push the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, introduced earlier this session by Shays and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., to the forefront of the House’s agenda and to send it to the Senate by May.

“As important as all of the other issues out there are, we can’t move on anything until we pass this bill and re-establish the trust of the American public,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.

The measure calls for a ban on soft money contributions — unregulated donations by individuals, companies and interest groups to the political parties — in federal elections. It also would prohibit so-called “issue ads,” campaign plugs paid for by third parties and also unregulated. The bill contains a provision written by Price and originated in North Carolina state government that would require candidates and political action committees to strengthen the acknowledgements that appear on ads so that voters clearly know who sponsored it.

“The ‘Stand By Your Ad’ measure is a way of broadening the approach to this reform, and the fact that it’s going to be a part of the bill makes me feel very good about it,” said Price, whose 4th District includes all of Durham and Orange counties. “There’s no reason to delay this bill. It’s ready to go, the support is there in the House, and we need to just vote it through.”

Hastert has pledged to bring the bill to the floor this year, Shays said, but lawmakers who support campaign finance reform said that isn’t good enough. Last year, a similar Shays-Meehan sponsored bill lollygagged in the House until near the end of the session, where it was passed by a 252-179 margin. By the time it reached the Senate, that body and the public was so focused on the impeachment debate that it was too late to build significant support for passage, said Meehan. The Senate killed the measure by filibuster.

“That’s why we need to get it done early this time,” said Meehan. “We need Speaker Hastert to make a commitment to put this first, to not wait until October, to get it through the House and then give the American people time to mobilize throughout the country, call their Senators in support, and get this done.”

House lawmakers repeatedly referred to the Shays-Meehan measure as a vehicle to get past the divisiveness left by the impeachment trial and the debate on its articles that took place in the House in December, and each congressman challenged not only Hastert but the Senate to move on the bill.

The bill has a significant army of 110 co-sponsors in the House, including 27 Republicans, compared to only six last year, said Meehan. He said he estimates the bill would get about 250 votes in the House, far more than the 229 needed to pass.

The problem, Price said, would come in the Senate, which mustered only 50 votes last year out of a needed 60 to block a filibuster.

“But we’ve got some new faces in the Senate, including one from North Carolina, and it may not be so easy to hide behind a filibuster this year,” Price said.

Republicans opposed to the legislation say that it violates candidates’ First Amendment right of free speech. But Price said leaders in both parties fear that limiting soft money would make it more difficult to win re-election.

At least two lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Bob Franks of New Jersey, expressed displeasure about a report in the Boston Globe on Thursday that said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay would try to slow the bill’s journey through the House by adding amendments that would have to be voted on separately.

“I think we’ll see a process similar to last year,” Mike Scanlon, press secretary for DeLay, was quoted as saying in the Globe article. “It’s going to be an interesting navigation course that Mr. Shays and Mr. Meehan have to go through.”

When reached by phone Thursday, Scanlon said he “either misspoke or was misquoted” and that, while “we’re opposed to the legislation as it was last introduced on constitutional grounds, it’s still totally in the developmental stage and totally up in the air right now as to how it will proceed through the House. This bill was only recently dumped on us.”

Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: February 26, 1999 Page: C10 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company