Election clock ticks for campaign finance bill facing a crowded Senate agenda

Despite a hard-fought victory in the House, supporters of the Democratic campaign finance bill are now confronting a more dispiriting reality: the dwindling chances the legislation will affect the fall elections.

Advocates of the Disclose Act have long pointed to July 4 as a deadline for enacting the law so that its provisions could be implemented and enforceable during the hotly-contested midterm congressional campaign. But with the Senate bogged down in fights over tax legislation, a Supreme Court nomination and energy proposals, that marker will almost surely pass without action on campaign finance.

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“Every week we go past the July 4 recess is going to spill into the campaign season,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a backer of the Disclose Act.

The legislation was written with 2010 in mind. Its provisions requiring corporations and unions to disclose donor lists will take effect 30 days after the law is signed, regardless of whether the Federal Election Commission has written guidelines governing their implementation. And the bill also was designed to make it as difficult as possible for challengers to have it invalidated in court.

Those aspects have bought the legislative process more time and allowed proponents to hold out hope the law can be in place for the fall.

“It can be done,” Holman said. He added, however: “I’m also known as the optimist among our coalition, by the way.”

A leading advocate for the Disclose Act, Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, had initially labeled July 4 as a deadline but said Friday that if the bill could be enacted by the August recess, it could still be implemented by the fall.

The political lift will be daunting. It requires the famously deliberative Senate to act faster than the House, typically the speedier of the two chambers. In a letter to House leaders last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and sponsoring Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) committed “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.”

Advocates say Reid wants to bypass the committee process and bring the bill directly to the floor in the hopes of quicker passage.

But the required 60 votes have yet to materialize. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have criticized exemptions inserted to secure House passage, and key Republican swing votes, Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), have registered their disapproval. Brown said it would be “inappropriate” to rush the legislation into law during an election season.

“The longer they wait, the more outrageous it would be to pass something” before the election, said Jeff Patch, spokesman for the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes the Disclose Act.

A sense of urgency has been a hallmark of the Disclose Act push. President Barack Obama called for a swift congressional response in his State of the Union address after the Supreme Court overturned limits on corporate and union campaign spending in January’s Citizens United case. Democrats warned the ruling would unleash a flood of corporate dollars into the congressional campaigns if unchecked.

Yet the early impact of the Supreme Court decision has resembled more of a trickle, at least in overt political activity.

“It’s fair to say we’re not seeing the corporate flood that people were talking about,” said Lisa Gilbert, research advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which supported the Disclose Act before the exemption tailored for the National Rifle Association was added. But Gilbert said the need for the legislation remained, since it targets secretive spending by corporations that may not be apparent now.

Patch said that argument was “grounded in Chicken Little hysteria and not in reality.”

If the November election goes off without a big foot role for corporations and unions, Patch said, “people are going to start to realize that Democrats were crying wolf on this one.”

Without action in the next several weeks, advocates say the disclosure legislation could stall completely. “It’ll lose a great deal of momentum,” Holman said, acknowledging that campaign reformers may turn their attention back to big-ticket items, like public financing of elections.