Backlash grows over McConnell's campaign spending measure

Backlash grows over McConnell's campaign spending measure
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A bipartisan backlash is growing against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSenate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight Republicans seek to lower odds of a shutdown GOP torn over what to do next MORE's efforts to insert an obscure measure into a year-end spending bill that would allow unlimited spending by political parties in coordination with candidates. 

McConnell -- who has long believed that money is an expression of free speech and that restrictions should be removed on political spending -- is trying to mimic a tactic that was employed last year. 

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In late 2014, congressional leaders from both parties used a massive year-end bill as a vehicle to greatly increase the amount of money that can flow into political parties. 

But while last year’s rider was snuck in at the last minute, this year McConnell’s plan has been smoked out early. 

The backlash now comes from both the left and -- perhaps surprisingly given conservatives' fervent advocacy of looser restrictions on political spending -- the right, but for different reasons. 

The protests are becoming so loud that they might encourage Democratic leadership and ultimately President Obama to stop McConnell’s rider from making it into the final bill. 

While the measure is complicated and largely unknown to the American public; if it passes into law it will significantly increase the influence of wealthy donors on elected officials. 

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Under the current law, political parties are limited to spending $48,000 in coordination with candidates running for House seats, and varying amounts based on population for Senate candidates. 

But if McConnell gets his way, the parties would be allowed to spend as much as they please in coordination with the candidates. 

The upshot, says the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center’s policy director Meredith McGehee, is that donors would have “much closer proximity” to the lawmakers they want to influence. 

In a letter sent to leaders in both House and Senate late Thursday, 115 House Democrats said that “such a change to the current rules governing political party spending would greatly increase the power of a select group of wealthy donors who are capable of contributing large sums to the political parties.”  

Urging the leaders to reject McConnell’s idea, the letter -- circulated by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and John Sarbanes (D-Md.) -- said that including the measure in the year-end bill “would only further surrender the party apparatus to the influence of millionaires and billionaires.”  

If the opposition was only coming from the left, McConnell might be in good shape to attach it to the spending bill, given the bill’s importance to keep the government funded after Dec. 11. 

But protests are now rising on the right. 

At a “Conversations with Conservatives” event hosted with The Heritage Foundation, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, the leader of the influential conservative House Freedom Caucus, Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), said he would not support the inclusion of McConnell’s riders in the year-end bill. 

“There’s McConnell’s campaign finance issue that’s being talked about,” Jordan said, “which we think is not the direction in which we need to go unless you’re going to free up the restrictions on everyone.”   

Jordan was suggesting that if parties can spend unlimited sums in coordination with candidates, then corporations and individuals should be allowed to as well. If this privilege is only afforded to the parties, then power would tip away from outside groups and toward Washington establishment figures, Jordan argues.  

“It’s a non-starter from our side,” said Dave Brat (R-Va.), another member of the Freedom Caucus, in a telephone interview Friday. “The trust level still isn’t there,” he added saying that the proposal “caused some heartburn” in the Freedom Caucus because members believe party leadership may use its extra money to try to defeat Tea Party-supported candidates in primaries as they have done in the past. 

The McConnell rider is also now opposed by another group of conservative policy and business leaders that includes former attorney general Edward Meese, president of the Family Research Council Tony Perkins and Senate Conservatives Fund president Ken Cuccinelli. 

Their memo, circulated Thursday by the Conservative Action Project,  argues that McConnell's rider would give donor preference to parties over the grassroots. 

“The McConnell rider provides preferential treatment to the Washington establishment, and subordinates the voices of those who contribute to other multi-candidate organizations,” the memo said. 

McConnell's spokesman Michael Brumas denies that the campaign finance provisions are an inserted "rider." 

Replying to questions via email, Brumas told The Hill: "There was no need to insert the language as it was already in the committee passed bill...The omni is a collection of approps [appropriations] bills. That language is already in there."   

Whether it's a "rider" or simply a plan, the campaign finance reform community is nearly united in opposition to it. And in interviews Friday, leaders of the movement said they were relieved to have caught wind of it in time to rally opposition against it. 

If McConnell gets his way, donors "would be able to evade the candidate contribution limits by giving much larger contributions to the parties that they could ask to be funneled to benefit their favorite candidate,” said Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance reformer for Democracy 21. 

“This should open the door to much greater money laundering, plain and simple.” 

Scott Wong contributed reporting.