Sen. Feinstein blasts House Democrats' deal with the NRA on Disclose Act

House Democratic leaders voiced confidence on Wednesday that they could secure the votes to pass a campaign finance bill in the coming days, even as the legislation faced an uncertain future in the Senate.

The Democratic leadership met for more than an hour on Wednesday with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who were concerned about an exemption granted to the National Rifle Association to keep the powerful gun lobby from opposing the bill. The provision would exempt the NRA from having to disclose its donors as part of the legislation, but it was so narrowly written that it would apply to few, if any, other advocacy groups.

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The broader campaign finance bill, known as the Disclose Act, is the Democratic response to a January Supreme Court ruling that overturns limits on spending by corporations and unions in political campaigns. It would tighten transparency requirements associated with corporate and union contributions, including forcing the CEOs of businesses to appear in ads funded by the company.

 While House liberals criticized the NRA exemption, few have said publicly they would oppose the legislation because of it. Participants in the meeting Wednesday said that although a few lawmakers, including Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), voiced strong objections to the carve-out, others said it was less of a concern and did not undermine the underlying bill.

 “The real purpose of the bill is not inhibited,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said.

 “The argument essentially is, look, in a perfect world you wouldn’t do this, but that’s the price of passing it, and it’s not a terrible price.”

 The provision Democrats added would exclude organizations from disclosing donor rolls that have more than 1 million members, have existed for more than 10 years and receive no more than 15 percent of their contributions from corporations.

 Nadler pushed for moving ahead with the bill, calling the legislation “absolutely essential to the continuation of American democracy” by giving citizens more information about who was spending money to influence elections. He and other supporters said the exemption was less harmful because the NRA does not usually try to disguise its influence in elections, a habit that the legislation is principally trying to combat.

 Nadler said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) vouched for the underlying bill on the merits, citing the effectiveness of a similar law on the books of her home state of California. As she left the meeting, Pelosi told reporters she was not concerned about the NRA exemption.

 Grijalva said he would wait to hear a response from the leadership to his concerns before deciding how to vote on the bill. “I understand the consequences of not doing something. We’re going to get drowned by corporate money,” he said after the meeting.

 

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Leadership aides would not rule out holding a vote on the bill before the end of the week, although they cautioned that details were still being worked out.

 “There are some final things that are being ironed out,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “We’re pretty confident on the votes.”

 Van Hollen told reporters the legislation was “in good shape.”

 Democratic leaders conferred on the House floor Wednesday evening to discuss scheduling a vote, although no decisions were announced.

A number of government reform groups, including Public Citizen and the Campaign Legal Center, are supporting the legislation despite the exemption for the NRA. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, however, split with the other organizations and said it would oppose the bill.

More opposition came on Wednesday as the Alliance for Justice circulated a letter denouncing the NRA exemption from 45 liberal groups, including the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and several gun control organizations.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce passed around its own missive from 232 business groups opposing the bill as restricting the First Amendment. Large labor unions have also yet to sign on.

For House Democrats, the most troubling statement may have come from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who sharply criticized the NRA exemption — a signal that the Disclose Act could face difficulties in the Senate.

“I strongly oppose any special exemption for the National Rifle Association in the Disclose Act,” Feinstein said in a statement Wednesday. “The purpose of this bill is to make sure that elected representatives are not beholden to special interests, yet here is special interest No. 1 receiving a deal to exempt it from an otherwise very good bill.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is sponsoring companion legislation in the Senate, but no Republicans have signed on, making any Democratic opposition significant.

Feinstein called the exemption “bad policy.” “The law should apply to the NRA, just like any other group,” she said. “If the NRA, or any similar group, is going to spend millions on political ads, the American public has a right to know who is funding them. The bill is the Disclose Act, not the ‘Everyone Except the NRA Disclose Act.’ ”

House supporters of the bill said they had received commitments from Senate leaders to take up the legislation if it passes the House.

Molly K. Hooper contributed reporting.

This story was originally posted at 12:42 p.m. and updated at 8:16 p.m.

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