WASHINGTON -- The most sweeping overhaul of campaign spending rules in a generation eased past a series of obstacles Wednesday in marathon House debate, clearing the way for a post-midnight vote on passage.
Republican leaders battled to the end against the bill designed to reduce the role of money in politics, arguing it was stacked against their party and unconstitutional as well. But a bipartisan coalition led by Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan trumped them routinely on key test votes.
"People think money taints every decision that is made in this Congress," said New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, one of 39 rank-and-file Republicans to buck their leadership on a 240-191 late-afternoon vote that bestowed preliminary approval on the legislation.
"We should not be afraid to go into a new era, to leave the old beyond," said another Republican, Rep. Zack Wamp of Tennessee.
Passage would send the bill to the Senate. Supporters there hoped for swift acquiescence that would send the legislation to President Bush's desk for his signature.
Bush has generally stayed above the fray, although the White House stepped in during the day to criticize a late change inserted by supporters as "unfair, unwise and unwarranted."
"The president believes that this should be removed," said spokesman Ari Fleischer, addressing a provision that Republicans charged would benefit Democrats.
Meehan told reporters several hours later the bill's supporters had agreed to clarifying language, although he insisted Republican critics had interpreted the provision incorrectly. "I want everyone to feel good about what we're doing," said the Massachusetts Democrat.
And despite Fleischer's comments, two senior Republicans who advise the White House said that Bush's political team had determined that the bill would pass, and that the president had decided against a veto.
Still, the developments on and off the House floor underscored the unpredictability of an issue that has long veered between lofty constitutional concerns and bare-knuckled political combat.
"The current campaign finance system is a disaster and it's an embarrassment to American democracy," said Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., one of a parade of lawmakers who argued that legislation was needed to rein in special interests. Several supporters made mention of the scandal surrounding Enron, the bankrupt energy-trading company.
But critics argued just as passionately the bill was unconstitutional and a fraud.