WASHINGTON — Trying to dodge a growing conservative firestorm, the House and Senate made clear Thursday that the community-based nonprofit organization ACORN was persona non grata on Capitol Hill.
House Republicans took over a debate about a sweeping student loan bill to propose a measure that would bar the Assn. of Community Organizers for Reform Now from receiving federal funds. It passed 345 to 75, with 172 Democrats joining all of the chamber's Republicans in support.
In the Senate, an amendment that would prohibit ACORN from receiving funding from an Interior Department spending bill passed by an 85-11 vote. It was the second such vote directed at ACORN in the Senate this week.
Congress' actions were the strongest statement yet that the advocacy group, which conservatives accused of voter fraud in the 2008 presidential election, has become politically radioactive for Democrats. Video made public this month that shows ACORN workers giving advice on how to evade the law is the latest subject of conservative criticism.
The House measure, which applies to any federal contracts, was offered by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista).
"The battle, however, to deny ACORN federal funding is not over until the president signs the bill into law," Issa said after the vote.
ACORN has received at least $53 million in federal funds since 1994, according to House Republicans.
On Thursday, ACORN suggested Congress was caving in to pressure from conservatives.
"We're disappointed that the House took the rare and politically convenient step of attempting to eliminate federal funding for a single organization, one that has been the target of a multiyear political assault stemming variously from the [George W.] Bush White House, Fox News and other conservative quarters," Bertha Lewis, ACORN's chief executive, said in a statement.
Lewis vowed the restriction would not cripple the organization, which said this week that it had fired the workers who appeared in the videos and that it was launching an internal investigation into the allegations stemming from the video.
In addition to Thursday's votes, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) sent a letter signed by 27 fellow Republicans to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), urging him to hold public hearings into ACORN's activities.
"As the organization's laundry list of fraudulent activity and abuse of taxpayer dollars continues to grow, it is time to crack open ACORN and expose once and for all the organization's full record of offenses," Cornyn said.
ACORN, which advocates for low- and moderate-income people on fair wage, education and housing issues, has offices in 110 cities, employs more than 700 people and claims more than 400,000 families as members.
The organization's role in registering Democratic voters in the 2008 election earned ACORN the enmity of conservatives, who said phony registration cards were filled out with names such as Mickey Mouse. ACORN contended that fewer than 2% of its 1.3 million voter applications were fraudulent, but allegations of impropriety have continued to dog the group. Last week, 11 ACORN employees in Miami were arrested and charged with voter registration fraud.
The most serious blow to ACORN's reputation may have come this month when video surfaced showing two employees in the group's Baltimore office advising two actors who were posing as a prostitute and pimp on tax evasion and fraud. The duo are filmmakers who have targeted ACORN offices nationwide.
The incident put Democrats on the defensive, with even the White House joining in the criticism.
"Obviously the conduct that you see on those tapes is completely unacceptable," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday. "I think everyone would agree with that."
The U.S. Census Bureau announced last Friday that it was ending its relationship with ACORN, which was to work with the government to encourage poor and minority participation in the 2010 Census.
The Senate responded to the video by voting 83 to 7 on Monday to deny housing and community funding to the group as part of a housing bill. It took similar action Thursday, over the objections of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said the vote was a political stunt because the Interior Department bill didn't include funding for ACORN anyway.
Feinstein was one of 11 Democrats to oppose the amendment, which was offered by Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) voted for the measure.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to investigate ACORN's activities in the state after videos surfaced allegedly showing ACORN employees in San Diego and San Bernardino encouraging possibly illegal activity.