McCain does about-face on grassroots reform bill

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has told conservative activists that he will vote to strip a key provision on grassroots lobbying from the reform package he previously supported.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has told conservative activists that he will vote to strip a key provision on grassroots lobbying from the reform package he previously supported.

The provision would require grassroots organizations to report on their fundraising activities and is strongly opposed by groups such as the National Right to Life Committee, Gun Owners of America, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

While grassroots groups on both sides of the political spectrum oppose the proposal, social conservative leaders such as Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, who broadcasts a radio program to hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians, have been its most vehement critics.

McCain sponsored legislation last Congress that included an even broader requirement for grassroots lobbying coalitions to reveal their financial donors. But now he will vote to defeat a similar measure.

It would be politically dangerous for McCain to support disclosure because it would anger many conservative activists, including those who advocate against abortion rights or for gun ownership rights. He is courting many of them for his 2008 presidential campaign. McCain’s presidential exploratory committee announced yesterday that Maxine Sieleman, a socially conservative leader who founded the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America, had joined its camp.

In letters circulated on Capitol Hill this week, the National Right to Life Committee and Gun Owners of America warned senators that votes on the grassroots lobbying provision would affect legislative scorecards they tabulate for each lawmaker.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) has sponsored the amendment to the lobbying reform package that would strip the provision. His amendment is expected to come to the floor for a vote today, said advocates opposing it. 

Bennett said he was “a little” surprised to hear that McCain would support him but was “delighted.” McCain is considered one of the most authoritative voices on ethics- and lobbying-related issues in the Senate.

“It’s a very high priority,” said Douglas Johnson, director of legislative affairs for the National Right to Life Committee. Johnson said ordinary grassroots activists from Arizona who had called McCain’s office were told by aides that he would support Bennett’s amendment.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, told The Hill that he had received confirmation from McCain’s staff yesterday that he would oppose the disclosure proposal.

“It’s huge,” Sekulow said of the issue’s importance. “It’s the most significant restriction on grassroots activity in recent history. I’d put it up there with the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.”

McCain was the chief sponsor of the landmark 2002 campaign finance bill, a history that still angers many conservatives. They cite McCain’s sponsorship of that legislation as something that makes them wary about supporting his presidential bid. But McCain’s recent action could redefine him.

“He’ll do everything he can to appeal to conservatives he has already tried to silence,” said John Velleco, director of federal affairs at Gun Owners of America, referring to McCain’s support of campaign finance reform. “I think he’s trying to gain the support of conservatives as much as he can.”

“Romney’s doing the same thing,” Velleco added, explaining that McCain’s rival for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is re-evaluating his past positions on gun ownership rights.

While McCain has privately told conservative groups that he will side with them, he was not ready to reveal his position yesterday. He opened yesterday’s floor debate with a 15-minute speech on the lobbying reforms under consideration. While he urged his colleagues to support the creation of an office of public integrity, he made no mention of grassroots lobbying.

Immediately afterward he declined to state his position on grassroots disclosure.

“I’ll address it when it comes up,” he told The Hill.

But McCain’s spokeswoman, Eileen McMenamin, confirmed that he would support the Bennett amendment. 

“Initially when Sen. McCain introduced legislation last year it had a grassroots provision,” she said. “Subsequent to that that he got a lot of feedback from groups that the requirements would be too onerous on them because of the reporting requirements.”

McMenamin added that a grassroots lobbying disclosure requirement was not included in reform legislation McCain introduced at the beginning of this month.

Johnson, of the National Right to Life Committee, said that there is confusion about which groups would be affected by the pending regulation.

“Under Section 220, anyone who is paid anything by an organization that spends any money at all to encourage more than 500 members of the general public to communicate with members of Congress, if he or she also has contacted congressional offices directly as few as two times, and has spent as little as 20 percent of his or her time on such direct lobbying and grassroots-motivating activities, would be required to register with Congress as a ‘lobbyist’ and file detailed quarterly reports,” wrote Johnson in a letter to Senate offices, adding, “If enacted, it will disrupt the constitutionally protected activities of thousands of issue-oriented citizen groups from coast to coast. …”

McCain’s past allies in battles to reform government strongly support disclosure and were surprised to discover his position had changed.

“We saw him supporting it last year,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen.

“It surprises me and it will surprise the rest of the reform community. I was really expecting him not to get involved in that provision and I had received no indication from his office that he was leaning against it.”