Dems pushing campaign finance deal

House Democrats are mounting an all-out push to pass campaign finance legislation by Friday after divisions within their ranks derailed the bill last week.

With a boost from the White House, the party leadership touted polling data and said it had gathered more support from its rank-and-file members for a bill that would bolster disclosure requirements for corporate and union spending.

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was forced to scrap a planned Friday vote on the legislation, known as the Disclose Act, after an exemption for the National Rifle Association (NRA) split the Democratic Caucus. After lawmakers left town with the bill’s prospects in doubt, the legislation’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), spent the weekend calling House members to try to salvage it. He also spoke with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the author of a companion bill in the Senate, said a Democratic aide who described the effort as “an all-hands-on-deck” attempt to pass the bill.

The result on Monday was a coordinated effort to rebuild momentum for the Disclose Act, with the hope, the aide said, of passing it in the House by the end of the week.

The White House released an official statement confirming its support for the measure, including the NRA exemption that has rankled many House liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The legislation has been a priority for President Barack Obama and House Democratic leaders since the Supreme Court in January overturned limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions.

The Disclose Act would require most advocacy groups active in political campaigns to release donor rolls, and it would force CEOs and union leaders to appear in broadcast ads bought by their organizations, among other provisions.

But when the NRA threatened to oppose the bill because of the donor disclosure requirement, Democrats crafted an exemption that would apply only to the powerful gun lobby, among politically active groups. That provision was later expanded to include a few other organizations, but the change did not immediately mollify House liberals, who recoiled from a carve-out for a group they have long opposed.

“This bill is not perfect. The administration would have preferred no exemptions,” the White House said in its statement. “But by providing for unprecedented transparency, this bill takes great strides to hold corporations who participate in the nation’s elections accountable to the American people.”

Democrats also released a memo sent to lawmakers from Obama’s pollster, Joel Benenson, touting strong public support for campaign finance reform and opposition to the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case.

A separate memo called the legislation “the most far-reaching campaign finance reform law since McCain-Feingold.”

A leadership aide said Van Hollen made 50 calls to lawmakers over the weekend and “definitely moved some votes. We’re making significant progress.”

Democratic leaders are also squashing attempts by House liberals to alter the NRA exemption and make it more palatable for lawmakers who oppose the gun-rights group. “As of today, we are not really entertaining any more changes,” the aide said.

But another change is raising additional questions about whether the NRA or other groups have received exemptions.

It has to do with a provision restricting groups receiving federal government contracts from running political ads and participating in other political activity.

The NRA has an undisclosed number of contracts with the federal government for military and law enforcement firearm training, and the group said the bill would force it to choose between continuing those contracts and training and engaging in any political activity.

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“The NRA provides critical firearms training for our armed forces and law enforcement throughout the country,” NRA President Wayne LaPierre said in a statement last week on the Disclose Act. “This bill would force us to choose between training our men and women in uniform and exercising our right to free political speech. We refuse to let Congress force us to make a choice.”

The original version of the measure prevented any group or business receiving more than $50,000 in government contracts from spending any money on political advertising or other “electioneering” communications. That amount was changed in markup to $7 million — and more recently, in the bill’s manager’s amendment, to $10 million.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, questioned the increase and said “it appears to be yet another backroom deal” by Democrats.

“This move is just another backhanded attempt to salvage partisan legislation already defective beyond the possibility of repair,” he said. “They’re auctioning off the First Amendment with zero regard to the dire consequences of their actions.”

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said his organization does not discuss the value of its government contracts and would not say whether the threshold amount of $7 million to $10 million was changed to accommodate those contracts.

He acknowledged, however, that an “alphabet soup” of government agencies and U.S. military divisions use the NRA’s firing range for training.

He directed all other questions to Van Hollen’s office.

Doug Thornell, a Van Hollen aide, said that legal experts, House members, senators, White House officials, and outside groups, all raised questions about constitutionality of the threshold amounts as well as concerns of unintended consequences on small contractors where influence is unlikely. He said the change in amount was unrelated to any specific organization or group.

And the legislation’s most vocal opponent, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, made its own push on Monday to keep the bill off the House floor. The Chamber released a print ad using an image of the First Amendment with the words “abridging the freedom of speech” crossed out in red ink.

The Chamber’s aggressive opposition has made Blue Dog Democrats nervous, threatening the bill’s chances.

“The Chamber smells blood in the water,” said Lisa Gilbert of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which had backed the legislation until the NRA exemption was added.

Van Hollen’s office had a different take. The Chamber “is petrified right now that this bill is going to pass. This is a last act of desperation,” Thornell said.