The Congressional Black Caucus isn't used to being the center of attention - certainly not in a Republican-controlled House.
Nor do its 36 voting members often take positions against the Democratic Party.
But in the last hours of intense lobbying in the runup to today's debate, minority lawmakers are emerging as the GOP leadership's best hope for scuttling campaign-finance reform this session. They are concerned that a ban on unregulated "soft" money would undermine the funding for voter-recruitment drives and their own reelection warchests.
Historically, African-American and Hispanic members have joined House votes to ban soft money. When sponsors Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts reintroduced their bill this year, eight CBC members and 9 of 18 members of the Hispanic Caucus signed on as sponsors.
When the Senate passed a similar campaign-finance bill in April, it looked as if the major obstacle had been cleared.
Then, a surprise: Just before the July recess, Republicans announced that they had recruited Rep. Albert Wynn (D) of Maryland, a member of the black caucus, to co-sponsor an alternative bill with Rep. Robert Ney (R) of Ohio.
The Ney-Wynn bill caps, but does not ban, big checks from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. In a bid for black and Hispanic votes on this issue, Republicans called their bill the Campaign Reform and Citizen Participation Act of 2001. Republicans also did something that minority lawmakers say the Democrats often forget: consulted them. It's a point many black caucus members make, even those who plan to vote for the Democrat-backed Shays-Meehan bill.
When CBC leaders asked the House Democratic leadership for assurances that voter-recruitment needs would be met, the answer was "...the NAACP could do it," says Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Texas, CBC chairwoman. "That's the only offer we've had from [House minority leader Richard] Gephardt," she adds. "But we need some ability to help raise soft money for that purpose."
"We're at the bottom of every fundraising measure there is," agrees Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, who nonetheless still supports Shays-Meehan.
In a letter to CBC members this week, he and Reps. John Lewis (D) of Georgia and Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee warned colleagues that the GOP bill is not real reform, because it still allows soft money, "which skews the congressional agenda away from our priorities and engenders cynicism among voters." Representative Conyers says he thinks his colleagues' concerns can be settled by a "gentleman's agreement" with Democratic Party leaders.
"Obviously, we have to compensate for the shortfall in soft money," Conyers says. "Nobody is trying to reduce voter turnout."
But it's a tough issue for many CBC members, who say they never get the support from the Democratic Party that nonblack members do.
"There's the belief [among those who hold the pursestrings] that you don't need much money to win in our districts," says Lillian German, who says she received only $60,000 in party soft money to fund the get-out-the-vote effort in black neighborhoods in Florida's Broward County.
Hispanic members, too, voice similar concerns about the impact on voter registration if soft money is banned. And they add another issue: Republicans plan to offer an amendment to the Shays-Meehan bill that will outlaw contributions to political campaigns from permanent legal residents, who are not yet citizens.
In the past, Hispanic members of Congress supported the Shays-Meehan bill, even with this "poison pill" amendment, because Democratic leadership assured them it would be "cleared up" before the bill became law. This year, they have had no such assurances, says Rep. Charles Gonzales, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who calls the amendment "a very emotional issue for us."
As negotiations continue to win back wavering minority support for Shays-Meehan, campaign-reform leaders are turning up pressure on minorities to be consistent with previous votes.
"No Democrat or Republican who has voted for Shays-Meehan in the past has any legitimate reason to abandon it now," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a public-advocacy group here.
"You can't hide behind the fact that soft money may be used for good ends, like voter registration. Good ends do not justify a system that is corrupting our democracy," he says.
At the same time, CBC members do not want to be tagged as scuttling the bill. "One-third of our Democratic caucus may not support the bill, but two-thirds of the Republican caucus ... will not. It's the two-thirds that are the problem," says Representative Ford.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor