Democrats prepare for election-year battle to craft Citizens United legislation

Legislation that aims to counteract the landmark Supreme Court ruling allowing corporate and union campaign spending could be introduced by the end of the week.

The bill would set up an election-year fight over a recent high court decision just as the Senate considers a nominee to fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

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Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are expected to unveil their legislation by the end of this week, although an announcement could slip into the beginning of next week, a Democratic aide said.

The Democrats are working to line up Republican support in both chambers to make the bill a bipartisan offering. Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.), Todd Platts (R-Pa.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), all previous backers of campaign finance reform measures, are seen as the most likely GOP supporters of the bill, sources involved in the discussions said.

The legislation is a response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in a case involving the conservative group Citizens United. That ruling overturned laws banning certain political spending by corporations, both for-profit and nonprofit, and unions. Democrats were furious with the decision, calling it a victory for corporate interests over average citizens, while Republicans said it was a long-overdue recognition that campaign spending should be treated as free speech.

Reform advocates say the bill closely conforms to a framework laid out by Van Hollen and Schumer two months ago. Major provisions include strict disclosure and disclaimer requirements for corporate-funded campaign ads, including a mandate that CEOs and top donors appear on camera to “approve” messages, much as candidates are required to do now. The bill would also explicitly ban contributions from companies with a 20 percent or greater foreign ownership stake, as well as from government contractors or firms that have received and not repaid Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds.

“The heart of this legislation is going to ensure that the public is aware of who is actually putting up the money to finance these ads,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

Many reform advocates are hoping to add a provision that would require corporations to hold a shareholder vote for significant political expenditures.

The measure is not expected to be included in the initial legislation, but advocates have been told it might be added if they can build enough support.

While time is of the essence for all legislation that Democrats hope to pass before the fall campaign heats up, speed is especially critical for campaign finance, Wertheimer said.

“The goal here is to have this effective for the coming elections, and there isn’t a lot of time,” he said. To accomplish that, Wertheimer said, a final bill would have to be signed into law by the July 4 recess, meaning the initial legislation would have to pass one or both chambers of Congress before Memorial Day.

Van Hollen told The Hill last month that once the legislation was introduced, he expected it to move “fairly quickly.”

Republicans supportive of the Citizens United decision have already attacked the Democratic effort as politically motivated, noting that the chief sponsors were the current chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Van Hollen, and the former head of the Democratic Senate campaign arm, Schumer.

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Van Hollen said he had long been a leader on campaign finance reform, and he stressed that the legislation would apply equally to unions, the Democrats’ traditional allies.

“I will challenge anybody to point out why this is not good for the people of this country,” he told The Hill.

The process for advancing the legislation, including whether the House or Senate would vote first, has not been finalized, sources said. But advocates said the drafting of the campaign finance bill did not expose the kind of tension and policy disagreement that had been at play between the chambers during debates over other major Democratic agenda items — most notably healthcare.

“Certainly the intention is to move all together,” said Lisa Gilbert, an advocate at the Public Interest Research Group. “It’s been a pretty cohesive process.”

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled that her caucus is shifting into “campaign mode” after more than a year of politically sensitive votes. Yet aides and advocates are confident that the campaign finance legislation will be popular and in tune with the populist sentiment sweeping the electorate, smoothing the path for vulnerable House Democrats.

“If you support reducing the influence of corporate special interests and multinational companies who don’t put America first, this will be legislation you can embrace,” a Van Hollen spokesman, Doug Thornell, said Monday.

One of the big questions heading into the debate is whether lawmakers will be voting on measures that are doomed to be struck down by the courts in the years ahead. Advocates acknowledge the concern, but they say the provisions of the bill are legally sound.

“On any of these components, the challenge is to do what we can to cut off the spigot of money and to remain constitutional. I think we’ve struck that balance,” Gilbert said.

The looming Supreme Court nomination battle could also complicate the legislative effort. The confirmation process will undoubtedly command attention and take up valuable floor time, but it would also present a nominee with the awkward task of answering — or, more likely, dodging — questions about pending legislation that seeks to undercut a recent court ruling.

Wertheimer said that while the time a court nomination would take up was worrisome, the politics were not.

“The majority that decided the Citizens United case is still going to be the majority when a new justice is seated,” he said.

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