Campaign finance showdown in works

Senate Democrats are considering a plan to hold centrist Republicans’ feet to the fire by forcing a vote on a bare-bones campaign disclosure bill.

With a Republican takeover of Congress a distinct possibility come November, advocates for greater limits on campaign spending believe they are facing a now-or-possibly-never scenario for the legislation. With time running out, they are pinning their hopes on Maine GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, two longtime champions of campaign finance reform.

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If Republicans do win back the majority in either chamber, the chances of passing the bill in the next two years are slim to none, advocates say.

“We have to act now or face the reality that hundreds of millions of dollars will be sloshing around in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections without anyone knowing what’s going on and where the ads are coming from,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, which advocates for campaign finance reform.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor of the bill, is expressing a willingness to negotiate on the bill but has stopped short of saying he’s decided to strip away everything but straight disclosure.

“We of course are open to adjusting the bill to address any legitimate concerns raised by Senate Republicans, but we do plan to bring it back up,” he said Monday in a statement. “The threat to our democracy is too great.”

The legislation, titled the Disclose Act, is aimed at blunting the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision earlier this year, which lifted restrictions on corporate and union funding of political ads. The measure would require corporations and unions to disclose who paid for their political ads.

Under the bare-bones strategy, other provisions in the act, such as prohibitions on political spending by U.S. companies with 20 percent or more foreign ownership and some government contractors, would be left on the cutting-room floor.

The vote would occur before senators leave Washington in October to campaign and could come as early as next week.

Government watchdog groups had hoped the new stripped-down strategy would convince Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to jump on board. But Brown shot down any chance of supporting the legislation Monday, even as Collins and Snowe kept their opinions close to the vest.

Brown’s spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho, on Monday said the congressman has not changed his mind and believes Congress should be focused on creating jobs for more Americans. The offices of Snowe and Collins did not return requests for comment.

Both chambers of Congress have already voted on the Disclose Act.

The measure passed the House after overcoming some serious hurdles, but the Senate version, sponsored by Schumer, attracted just 58 votes in the Senate, two shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

Republicans had strict marching orders from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime and vehement opponent of campaign finance reform, to vote against the bill, according to two Senate sources familiar with the discussions. McConnell succeeded in keeping his members in line, as there was not a single GOP defection on the Disclose Act.

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Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was absent the day of the vote, so supporters needed only to win over one additional Republican to reach the 60-vote threshold.

“A bill that goes to the heart of the issues raised by Citizens United has a better chance of passing this year and is essential,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “Americans need to know who is spending what for whom as soon as possible. Taking away issues that are being used by opponents to distract from this important, core need is the next logical step.”

Collins came out against the Disclose Act just before the previous vote on the bill, citing what she viewed as imbalances in the way corporations and unions are treated and complaining that the measure was designed to provide Democrats an advantage in the November election. Snowe, meanwhile, said she was focused on measures aimed at creating jobs and bolstering the economy.

The bare-bones tactic would force senators to go on the record opposing simple disclosure — a vote Democrats would no doubt use against Republicans in their own political ads during the weeks leading up to the election. It is designed to make it even tougher for Brown, Collins and Snowe, as well as those who have long supported campaign finance reform, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), to oppose it and maintain their mantle as proponents of greater transparency in politics.

“Educated voters make the right decisions, and so we should not be afraid to provide them with the facts,” said U.S. PIRG’s Lisa Gilbert. “At this point it’s up to the Senate to move forward and pass the bill so we can remove the public’s blinders and hold those who spend accountable to the voters they are trying to influence.”

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