White House donor order becomes flashpoint in Congress

President Obama’s draft executive order that would have government contractors disclose their political contributions has become a flashpoint for partisan fights in Congress.

In recent weeks, lawmakers have tried repeatedly to add amendments to larger legislation either in opposition to or support of the draft order.

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Provisions put forward by House Republicans to void the draft order could gum up key appropriations and authorization bills later this year, since the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to balk at adding them to legislation. 

House Democrats, in turn, have tried to add their own amendments in support of the draft order, but so far have failed to get anything through the Republican-controlled lower chamber.

Almost two months after it first leaked, the draft order is still under review at the White House. Campaign finance reform groups have urged the president to sign the order and are on the frontlines battling legislation to block it.

“The battle is really taking place in the Senate,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “I believe we can stop this legislative drive in the Senate, and if not there, in conference committee later on. We stand no chance in the House.”

Holman, who supports the draft order, said he has been lobbying Democratic senators to shore up backing for the draft order. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) were expected to offer an amendment to the defense authorization bill Thursday that would block it.

On Thursday, Holman sent a letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asking him to vote against Collins and Portman’s amendment during his panel’s markup of the bill.

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Another campaign finance reform group, Democracy 21, sent emails to Democratic senators on the committee, asking them to vote against the amendment.

Action on the amendment was expected after press time.

Holman said there has been so much congressional action on the draft order because lawmakers believe Obama will eventually sign it.

“I’ve been disappointed in the delay, but I suspect that’s because there is a number of priorities before it,” Holman said, noting the ongoing budget negotiations surrounding plans to lift the debt ceiling. “I would suspect that the White House will take this up in earnest after the end of July. In the meantime, we need to make sure that congressional Republicans don’t taint the issue with false arguments.”

Holman’s letter follows one sent Wednesday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee’s ranking member. Signed by Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president of government affairs, the business group’s letter was in support of the amendment that would void Obama’s draft order, saying “it would help ensure that political spending — or the lack thereof — continues to play no role in contracting decisions.”

“Clearly the [draft order] issue is a high priority for the Chamber, and we are prepared to respond to this issue until the administration makes clear the [draft order] is off the table. Our key vote letters are important because they put us on record in a very strong way — the Chamber intends to score members of Congress, in part, on how they vote on this issue,” said Blair Latoff, a spokeswoman for the Chamber.

Collins and Portman’s amendment is just the latest attempt by Republicans to attach provisions to larger legislative vehicles that would negate Obama’s draft order before he can sign it. On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee released its financial services appropriations bill, which includes a policy rider that would prohibit government funds being used to require government contractors to disclose their political contributions.

Other amendments have already been voted on and attached to larger bills moving through Congress. Amendments against the order from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) have been attached to the defense authorization bill and the homeland security appropriations bill.

A spokeswoman for Cole said the lawmaker would continue to add provisions to bigger bills where he can to block the order on contractors.

Cole “plans to continue attaching it to the most relevant appropriations bills that include agencies that rely heavily on contracting,” said Jocelyn Rogers, a spokeswoman for Cole.

Further, Collins, Cole, Portman and other lawmakers have all gotten behind standalone legislation introduced last month in both the House and Senate intended to block the contracting rule.

Democrats have tried to offer their own amendments in support of the draft order. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) tried to offer a supportive amendment to the homeland security appropriations bill.

“It’s a fair requirement, it’s a simple requirement, and I think that it’s something we should all agree on — disclosure, disclosure, disclosure,” Eshoo said in a floor speech announcing her amendment.

Her amendment was ruled out of order and did not receive a floor vote.

In February, before the draft order leaked, Eshoo offered an amendment that would have had government contractors disclose their political contributions. That too was ruled out of order.

Eshoo’s office indicated that she plans to be active on disclosure and other campaign finance issues in the future.

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While Congress acts, the White House is still in the review stage.

“The draft executive order is still in draft form and undergoing review,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman. “But broadly speaking, the president is committed to improving our federal contracting system, making it more transparent and more accountable. He believes that American taxpayers deserve that, and that is why he has asked Congress to pass a full disclosure law.”

The draft order comes after last year’s midterm elections were flooded by campaign ads paid for by outside groups that didn’t disclose their donors. The surge of election money arrived after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on electioneering activities.

In response to that ruling, the White House and Democrats rallied around legislation, known as the Disclose Act, that would have had outside groups disclose their donors. The bill stalled in the Senate last year.