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Election spending disclosure bill faces House vote

Democrats, facing opposition from the right and the left, scramble for support for a measure aimed at blunting the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of corporate and special-interest campaign financing.

June 23, 2010|By James Oliphant, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — House Democrats are poised to vote Thursday on a sweeping campaign finance reform measure to blunt corporate spending before this year's congressional races.

The bill would require advocacy groups that purchase campaign advertising to disclose previously confidential information about donors and finances. It was fashioned in response to a pivotal Supreme Court ruling this year that erased limits on corporate and union spending on political spots.

That ruling by the court's five-member conservative majority, in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, has been targeted by Democrats ever since and promises to be a central theme of next week's confirmation hearing for court nominee Elena Kagan.

Democrats say that if the bill known in the House as the DISCLOSE Act becomes law, contributors would no longer be able to hide behind political front groups, which now, as a result of the Citizens United ruling, can bombard the airwaves with advertisements up until election day. Opponents contend that the act infringes on free-speech rights.

But the act has also faced criticism from liberal groups that object to the horse-trading that has taken place to put the bill in a position to pass the House. The bill's sponsors, who include Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the Democratic House reelection effort, last week inserted an exception to the disclosure requirements that largely would benefit one powerful Washington lobby: the National Rifle Assn.

The exemption for large, established national groups neutralized a potential NRA attack, which would have had most moderate and "blue dog" Democrats running for cover. "The NRA's opposition would have killed the bill," one House leadership aide said.

Other organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the seniors group AARP, would also benefit from the exemption, but they lack the influence on Capitol Hill that the NRA carries.

The special-interest exemption doesn't sit well with organizations such as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which opposes corporate influence in elections. "We continue to really like the heart of the bill, but want to see the carve-out stripped out," said U.S. PIRG's Lisa Gilbert. She called the exemption "ironic."

Other Washington advocacy groups, however, such as U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent almost $50 million in issue ads nationwide in 2009, and the National Right to Life Committee, which opposes abortion rights, are pressuring members to vote against the bill.

"This is not about informing the public," said Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee's legislative director. "This is about deterring communication about those who hold or seek federal office."

Resistance to the bill from both the left and right had Van Hollen and the White House scrambling Wednesday to line up votes.

The Citizens United decision has been a particular irritant to President Obama, who mentioned it in his State of the Union address with justices of the Supreme Court present. He also noted the decision in May when introducing Kagan as his court nominee.

As U.S. solicitor general, Kagan argued the losing side before the court on behalf of the government. "She defended bipartisan campaign finance reform against special interests seeking to spend unlimited money to influence our elections," Obama said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday that "the more we learn about Ms. Kagan's work as a political advisor and political operative, the more questions arise about her ability to make the necessary transition from politics to neutral arbiter."

McConnell has also pledged to fight the DISCLOSE Act should the House pass it Thursday. If that occurs, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged this week to bring the bill to the floor as quickly as possible.

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