Schumer files new version of campaign-finance bill to court centrist votes

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has filed a new version of a campaign-finance bill aimed at winning the support of Maine’s key GOP centrist senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

The new version strips out several provisions included in the House-passed bill that conservative groups, as well as Collins, had said provides an unfair advantage to unions over corporations and other groups. Democrats are courting Snowe and Collins and could bring the bill to the floor for a vote as early as next week.

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The bill specifically jettisons a provision dealing with requirements that all businesses, unions and groups must disclose transfers to or from or between their affiliates of $50,000 or more, according to a Senate aide familiar with the changes. In order to appease labor unions, the House added language exempting any groups from reporting such transfers if the source of the funds is member dues, not large donations from corporations or individuals.

During the past week, Snowe and Collins have criticized elements of the Disclose Act, which aims to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court ruling lifting restrictions on corporate and union spending on political advertisements, before the August congressional recess.

Collins specifically expressed concern that the House-passed version of the bill provides special exemptions for unions that give them an advantage over corporations.

“The bill appears to provide a clear and unfair advantage to unions, while either shutting other organizations out of the election process or subjecting them to onerous reporting requirements that would not apply to unions,” Collins said.

Snowe said she was still reviewing the bill but was primarily focused on the small-business jobs bill and other efforts aiming at boosting the economy. Her spokesman, John Gentzel, said her official position had not changed with Schumer’s revisions to the Disclose Act. She still has concerns and is reviewing it but is primarily focused on passing the small-business jobs bill and trying to help bolster the economy.

Collins’s spokesman, Kevin Kelley, did not respond to a request for comment.

The changes to the bill will no doubt anger labor unions, which had already negotiated with House leaders on the provisions.

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, said they have concerns about the revisions.

“Based on reports, we are concerned that recent developments could hamper working families’ ability to have a voice in the political process,” said an AFL-CIO spokesman. “We continue to review the legislation and fight to ensure that the final bill addresses the tilted advantage that big business has enjoyed for far too long.”

But another change would affect all groups. In the House-passed version, businesses and groups would be forced to disclose transfers of $10,000 or more between organizations and other businesses only if the money could be traced back to an individual large donor.

“That’s a huge loophole that escaped notice [in the House-passed version],” the Senate aide said. “That loophole was closed to improve the integrity of the bill.”

In addition, Schumer got rid of an amendment that would have barred any oil and gas companies that drill along the Outer Continental Shelf from making political expenditures. It was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and was added to the House bill when it was considered on the floor.

He modified another provision requiring businesses and groups to state their geographic locations in political advertisement disclaimers. The new bill would only require those locations to be highlighted in TV and not radio ads because television ads could do so visually while radio ads would have to voice the lengthy disclaimer.

He also added language from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) that requires senators to file their quarterly Federal Election Commission reports electronically.

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Reform groups are focusing their efforts on Snowe and Collins and hailing the new version of the bill as proof that the measure is not intended to politically benefit unions and Democrats over Republicans and corporate interests.

“The changes made to the bill reflect an ongoing desire to make utterly clear that the legislation is not intended to advantage any outside group that participates in elections,” said U.S. PIRG’s Lisa Gilbert. “While the bill is not perfect, the clear goal remains to provide the American people with the information they need about wherever the money comes from before they vote in November.”

Several Maine organizations sent a letter to Snowe and Collins on Thursday, urging them to support the Disclose Act. The groups include: the Maine Small Business Coalition, Maine League of Women Voters, the Maine Chapter of The League of Young Voters, Maine People’s Alliance, U.S. PIRG on behalf of its Maine membership, Maine Council of Churches and Maine Common Cause.

In their letter, the groups cite polling figures showing that 85 percent of Maine voters believe it’s important to know who paid for political campaign communications.

“We have a chance now to pass a bill which provides that information to voters, but it requires your help,” they wrote. “We strongly urge you both to support the Disclose Act.”

Conservative groups are calling the changes “cosmetic surgery” and are still aggressively opposing the bill.

“The cosmetic surgery Sen. Schumer has performed on the Disclose Act has it looking just as ugly,” Center for Competitive Politics Chairman Bradley Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, said in a statement. “It contains the same backroom deals for labor unions and large interests such as the National Rifle Association. Senators should filibuster this modern-day Sedition Act.”

-- This story was originally posted at 3:08 and updated at 4:44 p.m. and 8:38 p.m.