The Senate Judiciary Committee took the first step Thursday toward repealing part of the First Amendment, giving an early OK to a new amendment that would give government the power to put strict limits on all political campaign spending.
The 10-8 party-line vote sends the amendment to the full Senate, where Democrats are likely to try to force a vote this month, as one of a number of politically charged issues they want to hold votes on before Congress takes a month-long summer vacation in August.
Democrats said their amendment was a response to two Supreme Court rulings in recent years: one to allow interest groups to spend freely on issue ads, and another that canceled limits on how much a person can give to federal campaigns overall — though the dollar limits to individual candidates remain in place.
If ratified, the new amendment would give Congress the power to ban campaign spending altogether, and would specifically target the 2010 Citizens United decision that freed interest groups to run ads.
"We can't fail to act," said Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat and an author of the new proposal. "I want to restore the previous balance."
He acknowledged that amending the First Amendment was "arguably extreme" but said the court decisions have forced Congress to this point.
To be adopted, the amendment would have to gain a two-thirds vote in the Senate and the House, and then be ratified by three-quarters of the states. It's unlikely to clear any of those hurdles, with Republicans saying they are unified in opposition.
"Washington Democrats seem to forget that the First Amendment is about empowering the people, not the government, but the proposed Democrat amendment has it backwards," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "It says that Congress and the states can abridge political speech — the speech that is at the very core of the First Amendment."
The amendment Democrats are pursuing is broad. If ratified, the amendment would let federal and state governments set limits on how much money could be contributed to campaigns, spent by candidates or raised and spent by outside interest groups such as the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club.
It would make a special provision allowing the press to operate free of restrictions, but that would raise other questions about who would qualify for media exemptions.
The battle comes as both parties, facing an electorate deeply and almost evenly divided on ideological grounds, have turned their attention to the rules for campaigning and voting, hoping to gain an edge there.
Since the 2010 Citizens United decision, Democrats have tried to pass more narrow legislation that would have forced interest groups running ads to have to disclose their donors, But the GOP has blocked that legislation.
In the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that overturned aggregate limits on the number of campaigns that donors can give to, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the First Amendment was not designed to make lawmakers comfortable.
"Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects," the chief justice wrote. "If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition."
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