- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Senate Democrats on Wednesday backtracked from a wide-ranging proposal to repeal part of the First Amendment, instead passing a slimmer constitutional amendment that singles out corporations for special restrictions and leaves to judges’ future rulings the toughest decisions about how far Congress could go in silencing electioneering.

The proposal cleared the Judiciary Committee’s Constitution subcommittee on a 5-4 party-line vote after a heated meeting that saw Chairman Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, repeatedly cut off Republican senators who accused Democrats of trying to fiddle with the founders’ vision for political gain.

“If there’s no chance of this happening, why are we engaged in this debate? The answer isn’t complicated,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. “There has been a political determination by Democrats in the Senate that it benefits them to vilify the Koch brothers.”

Democrats said they took offense at Mr. Cruz questioning their motives. They said they weren’t compelled by the 2014 congressional elections, but rather by several Supreme Court decisions that have overturned some of Congress’s previous campaign finance restrictions and allowed interest groups to spend more freely on ads, get-out-the-vote drives and other activities surrounding elections.

Originally, the Democrats’ amendment would have granted the government broad powers to limit or ban political spending by candidates, voters or interest groups. But after an outcry from civil liberties advocates, Mr. Durbin tweaked the proposal.

The new version requires that the government restrictions be “reasonable” — though it gives Congress free rein to halt political spending by corporations.

That almost certainly would mean the Koch brothers, David and Charles, who are generous contributors to a network of libertarian-leaning conservative groups.

“We know what they’re doing. They’re trying to buy the election,” Mr. Durbin said.

Democrats said they had initially wanted to pass a law demanding more transparency in spending by the Koch network and other rich donors, but after that proposal was blocked by the GOP, Democrats eyed the broader changes in a constitutional amendment.

The amendment would overturn a 2010 Supreme Court case, the Citizens United decision, which opened the door to corporations, labor unions and interest groups being able to spend their money on political advertising. The justices ruled that political spending was free speech and thus protected by the First Amendment.

Democrats’ new amendment would specifically protect freedom of the press, leaving media organizations free to continue to print or broadcast stories and editorials.

But who would qualify as part of the press would likely become a heated issue.

During Wednesday’s debate Mr. Cruz said if the amendment passed, Congress would have the power to ban books, stop movies from being run or even prevent someone from posting a yard sign.

Mr. Cruz turned to Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat and a former cast member on satire show “Saturday Night Live,” and told him his former program could also be banned from doing its iconic political sketches.

But Mr. Franken rejected those predictions as fanciful, and said he just wants to return the situation to where it was before the Citizens United decision. “This parade of horribles that you’re talking about is just not realistic,” he said.

The amendment stands no chance of being approved this year. It would need a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where it has fewer than 50 co-sponsors, and would need a two-thirds vote in the House, where Republicans are in control are unlikely to give it floor time. If it did clear Congress, it would then need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states in order to be added to the Constitution.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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