- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2010

A first push by congressional Democrats to counter a Supreme Court decision allowing business and labor groups to spend freely in political campaigns cleared a big hurdle Thursday, as the House narrowly passed legislation that calls for stricter campaign finance disclosures.

The bill, which among other provisions would require that the top five donors of outside groups be identified when they advertise in a political campaign, passed the House by a vote of 219-206, with a number of moderate Democrats defecting on the final vote.

The bill, which carves out controversial exemptions for groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), heads to the Senate, where it faces scrutiny from both parties.

Under the bill, companies holding government contracts worth at least $10 million, corporations with a majority of foreign shareholders and companies that receive taxpayer bailout funds would be banned from engaging in “independent” political activity.

“You vote ‘no’ on this, you are saying, ‘Go ahead and spend millions of dollars - corporations or individuals - and say whatever you want, … but we’re not going to let the voters know who you are,’ ” said the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat. “That’s what a lot of these interests want.”

But, in line with the argument embraced by a 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court case in January, Republicans said the bill was unconstitutional because it would limit free speech. They also argued it did not go far enough to ensure that unions disclose their political activities.

The bill “attempts to use the First Amendment as a partisan sledgehammer to silence certain speakers in favor of others, especially unions,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.

The legislation is a response to the high court’s ruling last winter that said businesses and unions could spend their own money directly on attempts to sway presidential or congressional elections. The 5-4 ruling overturned decades of precedent, and Democrats in Congress quickly announced plans to overturn some or all of the decision.

President Obama singled out the decision for criticism in his State of the Union address, with a number of the justices seated just yards from where he spoke.

“Corporations are not human beings. … Their mothers can’t die of cancer, their sons can’t be sent off to war,” said Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat. “Corporations are political zombies, knowing only the pursuit of the flesh of profit.”

Fearing the measure wouldn’t pass, Democratic leaders inserted a provision saying that certain organizations that have been in existence for at least a decade and have at least a 500,00 dues-paying members in all states wouldn’t need to reveal their top donors.

Key among the handful of exempted groups is the NRA. Critics say the provision was nothing more than political concession to the powerful gun-rights group, which had threatened to oppose the measure unless it was protected.

The provision created an unusual political scenario in which Republicans, normally allied with the NRA, spoke out against the powerful gun-rights group.

“Why is the National Rifle Association protected but not the National Right to Life Organization?” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “They think it’s all right to throw everybody else under the table so they can get a special deal, and frankly, I think it’s disappointing.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele accused Democrats of being “more focused on blatantly stacking the electoral deck ahead of the midterms than they are about creating jobs and reducing the debt.”

The exemptions also caused a backlash from some liberal groups and others typically aligned with Democrats. More than 50 environmental, anti-gun and civil rights groups petitioned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to drop the exemptions.

The American Civil Liberties Union also has come out against the bill, saying that campaign finance regulations “must be applied in an evenhanded manner.”

Thirty-six Democrats voted against the bill, which received the support of only two Republicans.

House Democratic leaders, eager to pass the bill before the November congressional elections, received good news last week when two key Senate Democrats - Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer of New York - promised to take up the bill soon.

But with only 59 members in the Senate Democratic caucus, Mr. Reid would need at least one Republican to cross party lines - an uncertain prospect.

Mr. Reid also may have trouble convincing all of his own members to support the measure, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said she strongly opposes exempting the NRA from the bill, calling it “bad policy.”

“The NRA claims they need an exemption to protect their First Amendment rights, but that argument simply doesn’t hold up,” the California Democrat said in a statement last week.

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