By Russell Berman - 06/25/10 12:58 AM EDT
The House on Thursday narrowly approved a campaign finance bill that tightens disclosure requirements for corporate and union spending on political campaigns.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where it faces a perilous path to passage.
The 219-206 vote on the Disclose Act came after weeks of aggressive lobbying by supporters, who cast it as fundamental to the health of American democracy, and critics, who assailed the bill as an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of speech.
“This was a fight over the people’s right to know,” the legislation’s chief architect, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), said after the vote.
Democratic leaders were forced to pull the bill from the House schedule last week after liberals revolted over an exemption tailored for the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The exemption was later widened to include more advocacy groups, but the change was not enough to win over some skeptics, both on the left and right. Thirty-six Democrats opposed the final legislation.
Those who opposed the bill included several Blue Dog Democrats in tough reelection battles, like Reps. Walt Minnick (Idaho), Baron Hill (Ind.) and Travis Childers (Miss.).
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), voted against the bill, which split the CBC. A majority of CBC members supported the Disclose Act, while 13 members opposed it.
Two Republicans supported the bill: Reps. Mike Castle (Del.) and Joseph Cao (La.). An original GOP co-sponsor, Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.), ended up opposing the bill because of the exemptions granted to the NRA and other groups.
“If the bill had not changed at all, I would have voted for it,” Jones told The Hill. “I wish they had not happened. I wish I could have voted for the bill.”
Castle, the other Republican sponsor, had been wavering in the final days, but he defended the Disclose Act in a floor speech Thursday. “I do not believe this is in any way a violation of the First Amendment,” he said.
Castle lamented the exemptions included in the final bill but said, “Perhaps they will be fixed in the Senate.”
GOP critics said the Disclose Act was rife with “backroom deals” and designed to benefit Democratic allies over other interests. Supporters of the legislation pointed out that opponents of the bill included advocacy groups on the right — like the National Right to Life Committee — as well as the left, such as the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In criticizing the legislation, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) even took a swipe at one of his party’s most loyal backers: the NRA.
“They think it’s all right to throw everybody else under the table so they can get a special deal, while requiring everyone else to comply with all the rules outlined in this bill,” Boehner said. “And frankly, I think it’s disappointing.”
The legislation’s most vocal opponent was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which targeted Democrats in swing districts and granted the vote priority status by including it on its congressional scorecard.
“The Democratic majority in the House jammed through a piece of legislation that clearly violates the Constitution as well as basic principles of fairness and equity,” Chamber President Tom Donohue said in a statement after the vote.
The Disclose Act is a response to a January Supreme Court decision that overturned spending limits for corporations and unions. It 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. CEOs would be required to appear on camera in political ads, just as candidates must do now.
“The House bill is not perfect — I would have preferred that it include no exemptions. But it mandates unprecedented transparency in campaign spending, and it ensures that corporations who spend money on American elections are accountable first and foremost to the American people. I urge the Senate to act swiftly on its version of the bill, and I look forward to working with both chambers on prompt enactment of final legislation,” he said.
Democrats want to get the Disclose Act signed into law in time to affect the November election.
But after opposition from Blue Dogs and liberals forced party leaders to postpone a vote last week, Van Hollen and other top Democrats mounted what an aide described as an “all-hands-on-deck” push to salvage the bill.
Van Hollen, a member of the House leadership and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, personally called more than 50 rank-and-file members and coordinated with the White House and the Senate to rebuild momentum throughout the week. The White House released an official statement of support, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) penned a letter to lawmakers pledging to take up the measure if it passed the House.
Yet with a busy Senate schedule and a fast-closing window of time before the midterm elections, the Disclose Act faces uncertain prospects. Feinstein and Lautenberg panned the NRA exemption, signaling that the compromise Van Hollen deemed necessary in the House may not fly in the upper chamber. One of the few Republicans Democrats could hope to win over, Sen. Brown, suggested his vote might not be up for grabs.
“To do any type of campaign finance reform before an election cycle to gain some type of strategic advantage is inappropriate,” he told The Hill. “There has been no evidence that any corporation is going to try to influence any elections. It’s being done strictly for a tactical advantage, and that’s not right.”
Another GOP centrist, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), told The Hill she was “leaning no.”
“I have issues with it,” Snowe said Thursday. “I really think it needs significant changes to make it fair and so both sides don't have an advantage.”
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he has told Schumer, the sponsor of the Senate legislation, that he is not yet on board.
“I’ve made it pretty plain to [Schumer] that we've got to talk because don't count me as an automatic supporter of the bill,” Nelson said. “I support campaign finance reform, but there's still some questions about this that I'd like to see addressed.”
J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this report