For the second consecutive year, Republican rank-and-file members defied their House leadership and joined Democrats in a 252-177 vote to ban "soft money," the unlimited and largely unregulated contributions that corporations, unions and wealthy donors make to the political parties.
In all, 197 Democrats, 54 Republicans and one independent voted for the bill, while 164 Republicans and 13 Democrats were opposed.
"We've gone from a government by the people, for the people, to a government of lobbyists and special interests," said House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, rejecting claims by opponents that the bill would violate First Amendment rights to free speech.
Like other supporters, Gephardt argued that passing the bill was essential to regaining the trust of an electorate turned off by big-money politics.
But getting the Senate to agree is likely to be difficult. Last year, after the House bill passed 252-179, Senate backers garnered a majority but fell well short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who authored the House bill with Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., said the situation has changed, with more lawmakers shocked by the way the parties and candidates are awash in money. But he also acknowledged that "we're still going up the hill and we could fall right back down."
As in the House, the Senate bill has a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, bucking the opposition of his leadership and joining a Democrat, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, to sponsor the bill. "I'm very pleased that a significant majority of the House is on record in support of meaningful campaign finance reform," McCain said. "I sincerely hope the Senate will do the same."
"I'm feeling quite good about the way this is shaping up," said Feingold, who said he had talked individually with Senate Republicans and found "quite a number who don't want to be associated with the current campaign finance system."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who opposes the McCain-Feingold bill, has promised a vote on the legislation next month.
The similar House and Senate bills, the first major changes in campaign financing laws in a quarter-century, would ban soft money and place curbs on certain political advertising. Broadcast commercials within 60 days of an election that made use of the name or likeness of a candidate would have to be paid for with regulated "hard money" contributions.
The same rule would apply to issue ads which ostensibly are meant to educate voters but actually are thinly veiled attacks on a candidate's positions.
Hard money refers to direct contributions to candidates, while soft money goes to the parties - supposedly for "party-building" purposes bt, in reality, often for individual campaigns.
"We have had enough talk about reform," President Clinton, a strong backer of the legislation, wrote in a letter to lawmakers. "The American people know the system needs to be fixed, buy many have come to doubt Congress' will to fix it."
But opponents contended that Shays-Meehan would violate their free-speech rights.
"This is the mother of all government regulations," said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House. "It attempts to control the political process and limit freedom just to protect incumbents."
"Freedom of speech is worthless if no one can hear it," said Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
But that notion was challenged by many within the GOP. "I would urge my colleagues to beware of 'sunshine patriots' who come to the defense of the First Amendment only when the speech being defended comes with a price tag attached," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.
Estimates are that soft money contributions in the next presidential election cycle could top $500 million, double the 1996 amount, with Republicans generally commanding the edge in raising donations.
Before winning passage, supporters of Shays-Meehan had to survive votes on seven amendments and three substitute versions, all regarded as "poison pills" that would have effectively killed their bill.
Among the amendments defeated were those that would have raised individual contribution limits from $1,000 to $3,000. Others would have required candidates to raise 50 percent of their contributions in-state and exempt the Internet from regulations in the bill.
Two amendments were accepted: one to bar alien residents from making campaign contributions; and another, offered by Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., to require a candidate who is not a federal office holder to reimburse the federal government for the full costs of using government transportation for campaign purposes.
Sweeney said his only purpose was to make potential candidates more accountable to taxpayers, and denied it was a partisan swipe at first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has flown on government planes and been protected by the Secret Service on trips to New York, where she is considering a run for the Senate.