Like the hero of a paperback thriller, campaign-finance reform keeps dodging bullets. Legislation meant to clean up the political-money game was almost left for dead last summer, but the Enron scandal revived it again. And last Wednesday evening the bill survived yet another near-death experience, when its backers in the House went head-to-head with one of their most powerful opponents, the National Rifle Association. Republicans, led by Tom DeLay, the majority whip from Sugar Land, Texas, offered a clever "poison pill" amendment that would have exempted gun-rights groups from the bill's limits on paid issues advertising. If the amendment passed, it could have killed the entire bill by forcing it into a House-Senate conference, where opponents could bottle it up forever. N.R.A. lobbyists swarmed through the Capitol, warning Democrats and Republicans alike that they would pay dearly if they voted against the amendment. But the reformers rallied again. Senator John McCain, his nose bandaged because of a recent skin-cancer surgery, camped out in an office on the House side of the Capitol--across the hall from DeLay's suite--and pleaded with Republican supporters not to break ranks. House minority leader Dick Gephardt, hobbled by a recent hernia operation, phoned more than 30 Democrats to stanch defections.
On the House floor, the wily DeLay hunched over a computer screen, tracking the votes of G.O.P. Congressmen. His Democratic counterpart, California Representative Nancy Pelosi--undertaking her first big assignment as the new minority whip--darted around the chamber, keeping wavering Democrats from changing their mind. As time ran out on the vote, DeLay looked back at the rear door to see if any more stragglers were coming. Finally, he drew a finger across his throat: the signal to end the vote tally. The poison pill failed by a narrow 219-to-209 vote.
A cheer went up among the reformers, and eight hours later--just before 3 a.m. Thursday--the House finally passed the campaign-finance bill, as 41 Republicans defied threats from their party leaders and voted for the measure. Sponsored by Democrat Martin Meehan and Republican Christopher Shays, the bill would ban unlimited and unregulated "soft money" donations, $500 million of which were raised and spent in the 2000 election. "This changes the architecture of American politics," said Gephardt, bleary eyed and still aching from his operation on the day after the vote. "This bill will allow the people to be heard again."
Not quite yet. The Senate put through its version of the bill last year, but now Democrats in that chamber must pass the House version so the bill isn't sent to conference, where it might languish. Senate Republicans will try to filibuster that vote, but majority leader Tom Daschle believes he has the 60 votes needed to end debate and get the bill to the White House by early next month. Chastened by the Enron scandal, George W. Bush is expected to sign it. He opposed the measure during his primary battle with McCain, but he would rather ride a train than be run over by it. Last week he enraged House Speaker Dennis Hastert by barely lifting a finger to fight the bill.