As the Senate failed again Friday to end an impasse over campaign finance legislation that is blocking several other bills, House Democrats sought to force the full House to address the same issue.
Senate Democrats continued to filibuster a six-year $145 billion highway spending bill, underscoring their demand to schedule a debate and votes on a campaign finance bill for early next year.
Senate Republican majority leader Trent Lott threatened to shelve the highway bill next Tuesday if Democrats did not relent. Lott made his threat after a procedural vote fell 17 votes short of the 60 necessary to cut off debate on the measure.
With only about two weeks left before Congress adjourns for the year, the opposing sides are engaged in high-stakes brinkmanship. Supporters of overhauling the nation’s campaign finance laws are betting that Lott blinks first rather than risk the highway bill and other important legislation concerning foreign trade and Amtrak.
Lott, who opposes most changes to the campaign finance system, is trying to crack the unity of the 45 Senate Democrats on the filibuster by threatening to pull back the highway bill, which would pay for new roads, bridges and public transit in all 50 states.
After a deal between Lott and Senate Democratic minority leader Tom Daschle unraveled at the last minute Thursday, senators resumed talks Friday about when and under what terms to consider a campaign finance bill by early March. But there was scant progress.
Across the Capitol, House Democrats began gathering signatures for a special “discharge petition,” which if signed by a majority of the House, would require votes on seven separate bills, including one that mirrors the main Senate bill to ban unregulated contributions to political parties.
As of Friday, 165 Democrats, 2 Republicans and the lone independent, Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, had signed the petition.
But it was unclear whether organizers could muster the necessary 218 signatures.
About 15 of the 206 Democrats in the House have said they would not sign the petition, meaning that organizers would need about two dozen Republicans, in addition to the remaining uncommitted Democrats, to reach the target.
Rep. Scotty Baesler, D-Ky., one of the organizers of the petition drive, said it might take until early next year to reach the goal.
Other supporters of the effort said a strong showing of 190 to 195 signatures would pressure House Republican leaders to schedule a debate to avoid an embarrassing setback.
Indeed, Rep. William M. Thomas, R-Calif., who heads the House Oversight Committee, said the panel could hold hearings on campaign finance as early as next week.
In addition, House Speaker Newt Gingrich met Friday with half a dozen moderate Republicans to discuss campaign reform options. One participant, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, said the meeting showed that Republican leaders were taking the petition drive seriously. Shays and Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey are the two Republicans who signed the petition.
But a spokeswoman for Gingrich, Christina Martin, denied the leadership was feeling any pressure and described Friday’s meeting as “informational.”
When asked how Gingrich would respond if organizers gathered 190 signatures, Martin said, “We’ll discuss it when they get there.”