A Democratic election year push to amend the Constitution and roll back campaign-spending free speech rights ran out of steam Thursday and fell victim to a Senate filibuster.
Holding the vote, even in defeat, was a major political goal for Democrats during the two-week session of Congress. They hope the fight will help them rally their base ahead of November’s elections, arguing that changing the Constitution is needed to prevent wealthy conservatives from improperly influencing elections.
The amendment Democratic leaders proposed would have given Congress and state legislatures the ability to set “reasonable” limits on how much candidates could raise and spend during their campaigns and to enact outright bans on interest groups that wish to use their money to influence elections.
The amendment would overturn the First Amendment’s protection of free speech as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
“This, make no mistake, is an attack on the First Amendment’s most important protection,” said Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican.
All Democrats present voted to back the amendment, while all Republicans voted for the filibuster to block it — a 54-42 division that left the measure six shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster, and underscores just how partisan First Amendment and campaign spending fights have become.
“Only in Washington is campaign finance reform a partisan issue,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said after the vote.
The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, but Mr. Reid was its biggest backer. He repeatedly took to the Senate floor to call for its passage and singled out his two chief targets for the amendment: brothers Charles and David Koch, who use their multibillion-dollar fortune to support conservative and libertarian causes.
“While Republicans in Congress stand up for the Koch brothers, Senate Democrats will continue to stand up for our constituents and fight the corrosive influence of dark money in American politics,” Mr. Reid said.
Mr. Reid’s own hold on power as majority leader also is threatened by the Koch brothers, as groups affiliated with their network are pouring tens of millions of dollars into ads in an effort to unseat a number of Democrats, which could deliver the Senate to Republicans in November.
Even if the amendment survived the filibuster, it would have needed a two-thirds vote to clear the Senate, another two-thirds vote to clear the House and then would need to be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
It has been more than 40 years since Congress successfully proposed an amendment to the states.
This battle over the First Amendment traces back to a 1970s-era Supreme Court decision that ruled campaign money is equivalent to political speech.
In 2010, the Supreme Court built on that ruling in the Citizens United decision, holding that labor unions and corporations can spend their own money on ads expressing their political views — though they are still prohibited from giving directly to candidates.
Democrats argue that those decisions have imbued corporations with rights the founders intended to belong only to individuals. They say allowing corporations to advocate for positions could end up swaying voters and swinging elections.