By Alexander Bolton and Aaron Blake - 01/21/10 06:00 PM EST
Democratic leaders will push legislation to limit the impact of Thursday’s Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on corporate spending in politics.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said he would hold hearings to explore ways to limit corporate spending on elections.
The decision will be crucial in the 2010 elections, when many House and Senate seats will be in play.
Schumer said the plan is to pass legislation by Election Day.
"The bottom line is this: The Supreme Court has just pre-determined the winners of next November's elections," Schumer said. "It won't be Republicans, it won't be Democrats, it will be corporate America."
President Barack Obama indicated he supports efforts to restrict the ruling through legislation, saying "We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less."
His statement was also critical of the court's decision.
"This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington -- while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That's why I am instructing my administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue," he said.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) echoed Schumer’s call.
"We must look at legislative ways to make sure the ledger is not tipped so far for corporate interests that citizens' voices are drowned out," he said in a statement.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said a similar effort would be underway in the House.
And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would work with administration to get legislation passed.
"We will review the decision, work with the Obama Administration, and explore legislative options available to mitigate the impact of this disappointing decision," she said in a statement.
Schumer said it would be difficult to pass legislation curbing corporations in the wake of the constitutional ruling but he said there are options.
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court upheld disclosure requirements for corporations but struck down the distinction between individual expenditures and corporate ones. That should allow corporations to spend freely in support or opposition to candidates.
"No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority decision, led by the court's conservative wing.
The case is a potential gatecrasher for the amount of money in politics, and experts were immediately casting the ruling as a big change in campaign finance law.
The decision is also the latest setback for legislation designed to reduce the influence of money in politics, including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
Justice John Paul Stevens led the dissent, arguing corporations are not actual members of society, pointing out they cannot vote or run for office.
"In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office," he wrote.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), one of the fathers of campaign finance law, called the ruling a "terrible mistake” but said he would also work on legislation to restrict it.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another leader in campaign finance law, said he was disappointed by the decision but did not say anything about legislative options.
"I am disappointed by the decision of the Supreme Court and the lifting of the limits on corporate and union contributions. However, it appears that key aspects of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), including the ban on soft money contributions, remain intact," he said.
The BCRA is also known as McCain-Feingold.
The long-anticipated ruling is expected to clear the way for an influx of corporate funds in political campaigns, and congressional watchdog groups were quick to decry it.
"This decision means more business as usual in Washington, stomping on voters’ hope for change,” said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign. “Congress must take on the insider Washington money culture if it wants to make the changes voters are demanding. The way to do that is by passing the Fair Elections Now Act.”
And one union criticized the decision.
Anna Burger, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer, said the court "lifted the floodgates and started dismantling century-old restrictions on corporate electoral activity in the name of the ‘free speech rights’ of corporations — meaning if you are a 'corporate person' (aka a CEO or corporate official), you are now free to hit the corporate ATM and spend whatever of your shareholders’ money it takes to elect the candidates of your choice."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also blasted the decision:
"Without any basis in the plain text or history of the Constitution, five Justices overturned precedent to grant corporations the same power as any individual citizen to influence elections. For these five Justices to reach their broad ruling, they overturned precedent, as well as the statute," he said.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised the decision.
"For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day," he said.
And National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said he hopes the ruling opens the doors for political parties to increase spending.
"This is an encouraging step, and it is my hope that political parties will one day soon be able to speak as freely as other citizen organizations are now permitted," he said.
At issue was a documentary critical of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) during the 2008 presidential campaign. The film was set to be shown in theaters and on-demand to cable subscribers. The FEC had ruled that Citizens United, a conservative group funded by corporations, could only use limited, disclosed contributions to promote and broadcast the film.
That restriction was upheld by the lower courts, but the Supreme Court has held multiple hearings on the issue while observers have been anxiously awaiting its decision.
— Tony Romm contributed to this report.
-- This article was updated at 3:45 p.m.