House Democrats postpone hearing on campaign finance legislation

House Democratic leaders scrapped Friday’s planned vote on campaign finance legislation as they struggled to unite liberals and Blue Dog Democrats on the measure.

The bill, known as the Disclose Act, has split the opposing ends of the Democratic Caucus over an exemption granted for the National Rifle Association (NRA).

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Democrats were forced to postpone the vote after party leaders failed to quell concerns from nervous Blue Dog Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) angered over the NRA exemption.

Aides characterized the objections leaders heard from members as minor in substance and more due to tensions created by the NRA’s involvement in the legislation. A vote could come next week if concerns voiced by members are satisfied.

“We made a lot of progress this week despite opposition by hundreds of special-interest groups who are doing what they do best — looking out for themselves. While we aren’t there yet, we will be soon. Reforming the way Washington works and taking on corporate greed is never easy,” said Doug Thornell, the spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The Disclose Act is a response to the January Supreme Court ruling that overturned limits on corporate and union spending on political campaigns. It would tighten transparency requirements associated with corporate and union contributions, including forcing the CEOs of businesses to appear in ads funded by the company. Part of the bill would require advocacy groups to disclose their donor rolls, but authors of the legislation crafted an exemption for the NRA, which had threatened to oppose the bill.

The provision exempted groups that have more than 1 million members, have existed for more than 10 years and collect no more than 15 percent of their contributions from corporations. Only the NRA and potentially two other groups would qualify.

Earlier Thursday, Democrats widened the exemption to include groups with 500,000 members.

The move was aimed at mollifying House liberals angry that leaders had bowed to the powerful NRA, traditionally a Republican ally. Yet some lawmakers had said they still considered the threshold arbitrary.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) suggested doing away with the membership minimum entirely and creating an exemption based on other factors.

Lawmakers coming out of a series of late-afternoon meetings in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office also voiced concerns about whether the Senate would be able to pass the measure. House Democrats have become increasingly irritated about casting politically risky votes only to see legislation stall in the Senate, and at least one Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), has lambasted the provision exempting the NRA from one of the bill’s requirements.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has lobbied aggressively against the bill. The NRA exemption also split government reform groups, some of which said it undermined the principle of the legislation.

The breakdown on Thursday reflected long-simmering tensions between the Blue Dog Coalition and House liberals, particularly the CBC. A party source said Blue Dogs were balking because of pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, while members of the Black Caucus were angry Blue Dogs had brokered a compromise with the NRA only to walk away from the bill.

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Advocates supporting the bill have pushed for speedy action so the legislation can be implemented in time for the fall campaign. While the measure has two GOP co-sponsors, most Republicans are expected to oppose it.

The Sierra Club said it remained opposed to the legislation even though it would now qualify for the exemption. "Many of our allies would experience the additional disclosure burdens that we would not and we still that feel a two-tiered system is unfair and undemocratic,” a spokesman for the environmental group, David Willett, said.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group also panned the new carve-out. “Our view is it’s no different,” research advocate Lisa Gilbert said. “The bulk of the bill is great reform, but widening the loophole is not a good thing.”

— This article was updated at 8:13 p.m.