GOP senators avoid co-sponsoring campaign finance reform legislation

Senate Democrats have been unable to find a GOP co-sponsor of highly anticipated campaign finance reform legislation, delaying the rollout of a measure aimed at counteracting a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had expected to unveil their legislation with bipartisan support by the end of last week, with a goal of delivering a bill to President Barack Obama’s desk by July 4 so that it would have an immediate impact in this year’s elections.

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That timeframe is in doubt, and the lack of GOP support could prevent passage of legislation through either chamber by Memorial Day.

Democrats now hope to unveil legislation this week, and the party is in an internal debate over whether to move forward without a Republican co-sponsor.

The difficulty Democrats have found in winning GOP support for campaign finance reform, an issue that has attracted Republicans in the past, reflects the highly partisan atmosphere in Congress, which has only intensified since the healthcare debate.

Republicans supportive of the Citizens United decision, which would allow unlimited corporate and union spending on individual campaigns, have attacked the Democratic effort as politically motivated, noting that the chief sponsors are Van Hollen, the current chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Schumer, the former head of the Democratic Senate campaign arm.

With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime champion of greater restrictions on campaign finance, sidelined in a tough reelection primary fight, Democrats had set their sights on the newest GOP celebrity with centrist appeal, Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), the freshman Republican who won the seat held by the legendary Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) for decades.

After weeks of courting, however, Brown turned down the Democrats late last week, according to spokeswoman Gail Gitcho and several sources close to the negotiations. Brown delivered the news to Schumer on the Senate floor Thursday.

“Sen. Brown’s priorities continued to be jobs, the economy and national security,” Gitcho explained when asked why he declined to co-sponsor.

Shortly after Brown delivered the bad news, Schumer would not acknowledge the failure to win Brown over.

When asked how important Brown’s support was for the bill’s passage, Schumer said only: “We welcome everyone’s support.”

In a statement e-mailed from his spokesman, Schumer on Monday told The Hill: “We are reaching out to a number of Republicans, but we will move forward with a bill whether we get a Republican co-sponsor or not.”

As of late Monday, Senate Democrats still lacked a Republican willing to sign up for the difficult task. According to sources close to the negotiations, Schumer was focusing his efforts on convincing Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) but had yet to successfully secure an agreement.

After the high court’s decision in Citizen United, Snowe seemed to come out swinging, saying it would undercut reforms that she and others had fought to secure and amounted to a “serious disservice to our country.” Snowe’s office did not respond to calls for comment for this story.

Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, her fellow Republican from Maine, co-sponsored the historic Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, along with McCain and a handful of other Republicans. But Collins’s spokesman Kevin Kelley said this year that Collins would not jump onboard. He did not indicate the reason behind the decision.

“As a co-sponsor of the 2002 campaign reform law, Sen. Collins was disappointed that the Supreme Court struck down so many key provisions of this bipartisan legislation,” Kelley said. “She believes that it is important that any future campaign finance laws include strong transparency provisions so the American public knows who is contributing to a candidate’s campaign, as well as who is funding communications in support of or in opposition to a political candidate or issue.”

Van Hollen’s efforts in the House are bearing more fruit.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) confirmed that her boss was planning to sign on to the House bill as a co-sponsor.

Other House Republicans, such as Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.) and Todd Platts (Pa.), are also possible co-sponsors.

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Still, the Senate problems are having an impact on the timing of the House bill, since Van Hollen and Schumer had wanted to work in tandem.

“Van Hollen has been working tirelessly to get this bill done and we are confident we are near the finish line,” said his spokesman, Doug Thornell.

Advocates of tougher campaign finance law say the bill closely resembles the framework Van Hollen and Schumer laid out two months ago. Major provisions include strict new disclosure requirements for corporate-funded campaign ads, including a mandate that CEOs and top donors appear on camera to “approve” messages. It 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 Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds.

Some congressional watchdog groups also would like to add a provision that would require corporations to hold a shareholder vote for significant political expenditures.

Despite GOP reluctance to publicly support the measure, the bill’s backers contend it will be difficult for Republicans to argue against it, especially because for years they have argued vigorously in favor of more disclosure.

“We expect this to be an intense battle, as all campaign finance reform issues are in Congress,” said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer. “But we also expect to win this battle because opponents really do not have any credible case to make against the legislation, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s upholding the constitutionality of disclosure in Citizens United.”