- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2014

Senators opened a historic debate Monday on whether to alter the First Amendment to give Congress the power to squelch free speech in the form of campaign spending, setting up a showdown vote later this week on the first alterations to the founding document in decades.

Democrats say the debate is a referendum on democracy and keeping the wealthy from distorting the system. Republicans counter it’s a debate about fundamental freedom of speech that all Americans should have.

For Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat driving the debate, it’s chiefly about two people — Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who pour tens of millions of dollars into conservative and libertarian causes.

“They are trying to buy America, at every level of government,” Mr. Reid said.

Democrats are trying to undo several Supreme Court decisions that have ruled that spending money on issue ads is covered by free speech guarantees that neither Congress nor the states can ban.

Their legislation would give Congress or state legislatures the power to “set reasonable limits” on how much money political candidates could raise and spend in seeking election and power to prohibit outside groups from spending any money at all on ads.

That would apply particularly to corporations, whom Democrats say are increasingly being granted rights that should be reserved to individuals.

Their proposed amendment would specifically carve out an exemption for the corporations that own the press, which would be allowed to use its reporting to influence elections.

Republicans said Democrats were trying to silence political opponents rather than debate their ideas and accused Mr. Reid of forcing the issue to the floor in order to rally his political base ahead of November’s elections.

“This proposed amendment would be the biggest threat to free speech that Congress would have enacted since the Alien and Sedition Acts back in 1798,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.

An early test vote Monday easily succeeded, with the Senate voting 79-18 to overcome an initial filibuster attempt.

Republicans said they voted to hold the debate in order to highlight how radical the Democrats’ proposal was, but GOP senators said they’ll defeat it later this week.

To succeed, the amendment would need to get a two-thirds vote in the Senate — which would mean all 55 members of the Democratic caucus as well as a dozen Republicans — and a two-thirds vote in the GOP-controlled House, which would be unlikely to ever bring the measure to the floor.

If it cleared Congress, it would then be proposed to the states, and three-quarters of them would have to ratify it for it to become the 28th Amendment.

It’s been four decades since the last successful amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress, and constitutional experts said the First Amendment itself has never been amended.

Democrats turned to a constitutional amendment after first trying to force groups involved in politics to have to disclose the sources of all of their funding. Republicans blocked those efforts as well.

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