Campaign bill may lose Republican sponsor

Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), one of just two Republican sponsors of a sweeping campaign finance bill, is so upset about late changes to the measure that he is considering withdrawing his support and voting against it.

“He’s absolutely opposed to the exemption,” Castle spokeswoman Kate Dickens told The Hill. “The exemptions are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t think they are even done yet.”

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When asked whether the exemptions could jeopardize his vote for the overall bill, Dickens said: “Yes, it really could.

“This is a slippery slope,” she said. “It’s just disclosure, for God’s sake … now you’re just handing talking points to those who oppose the bill.”

House Democrats are furiously trying to secure votes to pass the campaign finance legislation, known as the Disclose Act, by Friday after divisions within their ranks over late changes and carve-outs for different groups derailed the bill last week. It is slated to come to the floor on Thursday.

The bill would require corporations and nonprofit groups to disclose their top five donors if they spend money on political advertising. It would also force corporate executives and union officials to stand by their ads and disclose who is funding them. The bill aims to blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January, which lifted restrictions on spending by corporations and unions on political advertising.

An exemption tailored for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and a few other groups split the Democratic Caucus. Democratic leaders felt pressured by the NRA when it threatened to leverage its 4 million members and other lobbying resources against the legislation unless it was exempted from donor disclosure requirements contained in the bill.

Last week Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the main Democratic sponsor, announced a compromise that would exempt longstanding groups if they have more than 1 million members and received less than 15 percent of their funding from corporations — a set of requirements that seemed suited specifically to the NRA.

After learning of the NRA carve-out, other groups on the left, such as the Sierra Club and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, started making waves, and business-friendly Blue Dog Democrats continued to raise new objections based on opposition from corporations.

Van Hollen then expanded the exemption to groups with memberships over 500,000, but still couldn’t win enough support for a planned House vote Friday. He has since said that the deal benefiting the NRA and other large-membership groups was not ideal but was the only way to win enough votes to pass the legislation. 

Van Hollen told reporters as he left a leadership meeting Tuesday that the plan remained for the House to vote on the Disclose Act this week. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. Asked if he had the votes to pass, he said, “Yes.”

Responding to the comments from Castle’s spokeswoman, Van Hollen noted he and the Delaware Republican had published an op-ed in the Washington Post “in which we reiterated our joint support” after the exemption for the NRA was announced last week.

The op-ed was published June 17 and references the exemption. “While we prefer our original bill, with equal treatment of all organizations, this legislation will still shine an unprecedented amount of sunlight on campaign expenditures,” the authors wrote.

The other Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), is also wavering. He told The Hill on Tuesday that “the concessions could impact” his vote. “I can’t confirm how I would vote before I see the details,” he said. “I would rather have not seen any exceptions made.” He said he supported the bill conceptually but planned to meet with Van Hollen’s office on Wednesday before committing his vote.

House Democrats scheduled a Rules Committee meeting on the bill for Wednesday, another signal of confidence that they had the votes to pass. However, a similar hearing had been scheduled last week before being abruptly canceled when tensions in the caucus flared.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are trying to reassure nervous House Democrats that the Senate is committed to taking up the Disclose Act.

Reid and Schumer wrote a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) on Tuesday pledging to “work tirelessly” for Senate consideration of the House measure.

“We commit to working tirelessly for Senate consideration of the House-passed bill so it can be signed by the president in time to take effect for the 2010 elections,” they wrote.

The letter is aimed at assuaging the concerns of Blue Dogs and other conservative Democrats that the Senate will act on the legislation and not leave them vulnerable to political attacks without any real chance the bill will pass the Senate and become law.

House Democrats embraced the letter, which is part of a coordinated effort to rebuild momentum for the bill this week. On Monday, the White House released an official statement of support for the legislation, and on Tuesday, Democrats highlighted a new poll by the liberal group People for the American Way indicating support for increased disclosure requirements.

Van Hollen said the letter from Reid and Schumer “makes clear that the Senate is committed to taking up and passing the Disclose Act in short order.” House Democratic Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) called the letter “significant.” 

“As with almost every major bill before the House, we made some compromises to build support for the legislation, but I am confident we are advancing the strongest campaign finance reform bill in years,” Clyburn said in a statement.

The Senate version has 50 sponsors, the letter noted — all Democrats. Though the bill has yet to secure any Republican sponsors, supporters say several Republicans with a history of backing campaign finance reform measures plan to vote for the bill once it hits the Senate floor. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have both criticized the NRA exemption, suggesting Democratic support for the broader bill may not be unanimous.