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Could Campaign-Finance Reform Really Pass?

Current debate on Capitol Hill highlights distance between the two reform camps

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After being repeatedly deep-sixed by the leadership, pilloried by the Christian right, and declared done with by the pundits, campaign-finance reform is back on Capitol Hill.

In fact, the proposals to begin to overhaul the nation's political system are expected to dominate the House debate July 29. Supporters are even cautiously optimistic a key bill may finally pass - that's if it can overcome the legislative traps set by a leadership determined to bury it.

"I feel like we're in the middle of a minefield," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a key proponent of reform.

Supporters say the stakes are nothing less than the health of the nation's democratic process: the campaign coffers of both parties are now overflowing with tens of millions of dollars in special interest money. Reformers say that feeds the power of those wealthy supporters, along with public cynicism and voter apathy.

Opponents claim the efforts to staunch the free flow of campaign cash amount to an assault on free speech. Anyone with money should be able to spend it to make their political case, they argue, the Constitution says so.

"Our goal should be a system ... that values political participation and encourages the exercise of our precious First Amendment rights by allowing voters to contribute freely to the candidate of their choice," says House majority whip Tom Delay of Texas.

But for many seasoned political hands, the decade-long fight over campaign-finance reform has more to do with protecting whichever party is in power.

"Those who are determined to keep the status quo are very determined," says Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan. "What they're missing is that the status quo is distorting this institution, no matter who's in the majority."

President Bush vetoed a Democratic campaign-finance reform bill in 1992. Four years later, the House Democratic leadership nixed a proposal that had squeaked by in the Senate.

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