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Campaign finance reformers sense Enron’s collapse will push their cause to victory

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WASHINGTON — Enron Corp.'s collapse and its multimillion-dollar flood of political gifts may be just enough to get long-stalled campaign money restrictions enacted into law, the plan's advocates say.

A bill already passed by the Senate and needing support from just four more House members would prohibit so-called soft money donations to political parties.

Soft money contributions amounted to more than a third of the $5.77 million Enron has pumped into campaign coffers over the past 12 years.

"We all get tainted by the process, and it's important for us to clean up the taint," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a longtime champion of banning unlimited soft money contributions from unions, companies and individuals for political campaigns.

Shays and his co-sponsor, Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., announced last month they had picked up four more lawmakers in their pursuit of 218 signatures, a majority of the House, needed to force a vote on their bill.

The legislation, opposed by the House's Republican leaders, was knocked off the calendar by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year. Armed with 214 signatures and details of Enron's political activities, supporters are eager to resume the effort when Congress returns to work next week.

The spotlight on Enron is "very helpful to the battle," said Fred Werthheimer, president of Democracy 21, a private group that favors the tightening of campaign finance laws. "It returns national attention to the dangers of big money in American politics and the way in which money is spread around in Washington to try to influence the process."

Of the $5.77 million in contributions the Texas-based company has made since 1989, nearly three-fourths went to Republicans. In the 2000 election, it gave $2.4 million to individual candidates, political action committees and soft money contributions to political parties, said the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.

Over those 12 years, according to the center, 71 current senators and 188 House members have benefited from Enron's largesse. Topping the list were Texas' two Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Phil Gramm, each receiving almost $100,000, and seven Texan representatives led by Democrat Ken Bentsen with $42,750.

Enron was a major contributor to the Bush presidential campaign and donated $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney inaugural gala last January, a sum matched by its then chief executive officer, Kenneth Lay, and his wife.

"It taints all of us, including me," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain was co-author of a bill passed by the Senate last April with virtually the same prohibitions in Shays' and Meehan's measure. McCain has received $9,500 from Enron since 1989.

Enron has established a large lobbying presence in Washington as it worked to win elecT(mqity deregulation and favorable tax treatment. While no evidence has been disclosed that any government official did anything wrong in relation to Enron, "the fact that a company would donate $1.9 million in soft money alone is just unacceptable," Meehan said.

Shays said his constituents in Connecticut who bring up the subject intuitively "recognize that a company that is spending millions of dollars of their corporate treasury money in campaigns is trying to buy influence."

The renewed focus could make the difference in the search for the extra four representatives' signatures needed to force a House vote on the Shays-Meehan bill.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., agreed to allow a vote last July, but supporters of the measure protested that rules for debate proposed by GOP House leaders were unfair to their side. They voted to pull the bill from the floor.

Hastert has shown no interest in giving Shays-Meehan another shot, and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, actively opposes it.

Democracy 21's Werthheimer said the Enron collapse, to be discussed in numerous congressional hearings in the coming months, will make it harder for DeLay, who has received $28,900 from Enron, to persuade Republicans to abandon their support for Shays-Meehan. He said he hoped to see a House vote by late February or early March.

President Bush opposes the Shays-Meehan approach to limiting campaign spending, which many Republicans see as an infringement of free speech rights. But he's also told lawmakers he's unlikely to veto it if it reaches his desk.

Meehan said Enron's fall "makes it all the more likely the president will sign our bill."

On the Net: Congress: thomas.loc.gov/

Center for Responsive Politics: www.opensecrets.org/