How Can Lott Stop McCain’s Reform Bill?

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., is holding up the routine transmission of the Senate campaign-finance-reform bill, which passed April 2, to the House of Representatives. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a chief author of the bill, is so incensed at the delay that he got the Senate to pass a resolution calling for the bill to be sent. How can Lott hold up the bill and what effect does that have on its eventually being signed into law?

Lott can hold up the bill because he is the man who controls the paper. Normally, when a bill passes the Senate it is sent pro forma within days to the House so that body can consider the legislation (and vice versa). The transmission from the Senate is done by the secretary of the Senate, an administrator who serves at the pleasure of the majority leader and who also happens to be an old friend of the majority leader. In this case, it is Lott’s pleasure that the campaign-finance bill simply hang around for a while. What keeps the majority leader from becoming Master of All He Surveys is the fact that 99 other people would get their magisterial egos out of joint if the Senate became a dictatorship. As unusual as it is for the majority leader to hold up what is normally the routine process of sending a bill from the Senate to the House, even more unusual is a vote in the Senate reproving him for such a maneuver.

While Lott’s tactic is for the most part symbolic, and Lott promises he will send the bill over … someday, his delay does have some practical consequences. The easiest way for a bill to become law is that one chamber passes the legislation and sends it to the other chamber, which adopts it in its entirety, allowing the bill to be sent to the president for signature. Then there is the pingpong maneuver, where the house receiving the bill makes changes to it, then sends it back over for consideration of those changes, and back and forth until both houses pass identical bills. The most cumbersome process, used for the most controversial legislation, is when each chamber passes a version of the bill and then selected members of both the House and Senate meet in a conference committee to work out differences.

McCain’s goal is to get a bill passed without having to go to conference, which could end up killing it. In McCain’s ideal world, once his bill arrives at the House, supporters of campaign reform would push through a vote to simply adopt the Senate version, thus speeding its passage into law. Since the world has rarely conformed to McCain’s ideal vision of it, this prospect is considered unlikely. There is another way that it would be helpful to McCain to have his bill transmitted to the Senate: If the House passes its own version of the bill, it could then call up the Senate bill and in essence substitute its language for the Senate language, then send that back to the Senate. If McCain and co-author Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., found those changes acceptable, they could try to get this new version of their bill voted on by the whole Senate, thus avoiding the dreaded conference committee

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