Proposal would have amended U.S. election laws to immunize bloggers from hundreds of pages of federal regulations.
In an acrimonious debate that broke largely along party lines, more than three-quarters of congressional Democrats voted to oppose the reform bill, which had enjoyed wide support from online activists and Web commentators worried about having to comply with a tangled skein of rules.
The vote tally in the House of Representatives, 225 to 182, was not enough to send the Online Freedom of Speech Act to the Senate. Under the rules that House leaders adopted to accelerate the process, a two-thirds supermajority was required.
"I'm horribly disappointed that this important measure failed to pass," said Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn. "This bill was designed to protect the free-speech rights of Americans whose only alleged crime is wanting to use the Internet to express their opinions."
The Federal Election Commission is under court order to finalize rules extending a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet. Unless Congress acts, the final regulations are expected to be announced by the end of the year. (They could cover everything from regulating hyperlinks to politicians' Web sites to forcing disclosure of affiliations with campaigns.)
Opponents of the reform plan mounted a last-minute effort to derail the bill before the vote on Wednesday evening. Liberal advocacy groups circulated letters warning the measure was too broad and would invite "corrupt" activities online, and The New York Times wrote in an editorial this week that "the Internet would become a free-fire zone without any limits on spending."
Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat who opposed the bill, said during the floor debate: "We don't allow child pornography on the Internet. We don't exempt it from consumer safety laws...We don't because we think those laws are important." Campaign finance regulations should be extended as well, he said.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, said that if the bill were approved, the public would have "no idea whether Internet campaign ads are being financed by secret soft money." Soft money is a general term referring to funds not regulated by election laws.
The House reform proposal, only one page long, simply says that the portion of federal election law that deals with publications aimed at the general public "shall not include communications over the Internet." It may eventually receive another vote under a slower, normal procedure that requires only a majority.
Not every Democrat opposed the campaign finance reform proposal. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose district includes part of Silicon Valley, said her colleagues should not believe the editorials in The New York Times and Washington Post. "What the bill does is a lot more modest than what the rhetoric would have us believe," Lofgren said. "All of the hoo-rah-rah...is incorrect."