New GOP senator could vote with Democrats on campaign finance bill

Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) could buck his Republican leadership in his first two weeks on the job and vote in favor of a campaign-finance transparency bill that the GOP’s top brass ardently oppose.



Watchdogs are pushing for a vote on a stripped-down version of a campaign finance bill during the upcoming lame-duck session. That version of the legislation would force groups bankrolled by anonymous donors to disclose the sources of their funding, as well as their political spending.



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Advocates for greater limits on campaign finance have been eyeing Kirk, as well as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), as two possible votes that could revive the once-moribund Disclose Act and give it the momentum it needs to pass the Senate and be signed into law.



“Unless we enact new disclosure laws, secret contributions to outside spending groups are bound to dramatically increase in the 2012 elections, when both presidential and congressional races will be at stake,” said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer.



Kirk takes his seat later this month after his win in the special election to replace appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who filled President Obama's former Senate seat. When asked whether Kirk plans to vote in favor of the Disclose bill, spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski pointed to comments her boss made in his last campaign debate.



“I broke with my party early. I think we should continue with further reforms,” Kirk said. “Federal candidates should disclose all of their campaign contributions within 24 hours on the Internet. I hope we can get that done in the next Senate and Congress. Also, for all of these outside groups we don’t want to silence any political voice ... we should have them disclose all of their donors, both from the left and the right.”



Kirk is a longtime supporter of more limits on campaign finance. But, as a member of the House, he voted against the Disclose Act when it came up for a vote in late June. His resolve will be tested in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has spent years trying to fight greater restrictions. In his comments, Kirk said he hoped Congress could pass tougher disclosure laws in the next Senate and Congress, but with fewer Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in charge of the House, passing the Disclose Act will be virtually impossible.



Watchdog groups view the lame-duck as the last realistic opportunity they have to push the bill through Congress.



Kirk could have more support in a Senate lame-duck from other Republicans fed up with the aggressive, undisclosed outside spending that took place in their own campaigns. After losing the GOP primary to Tea Party-backed Jeff Miller, Murkowski launched a write-in candidacy to retain her seat. But she was pummeled early on by spending from independent outside groups, most notably the Tea Party Express and the Senate Conservatives Fund backed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).



An independent coalition of Alaska Native regional corporations formed their own group, Alaskans Standing Together, and spent heavily on Murkowski’s behalf, but the senator may have been so stung by her primary loss that she is ready to support the Disclose Act.



A spokesman for Murkowski late last week said his boss was traveling and could not be reached for comment.



Other centrists who witnessed the stinging primary defeats of likeminded congressional colleagues by Tea Party-backed candidates — candidates who went on to lose in the general election — may also decide to join forces and vote in favor of the Disclose Act. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is up for re-election in 2012 and will no doubt attract a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate.



Snowe and her fellow GOP centrist colleague from Maine, Sen. Susan Collins, withheld their support for the Disclose Act in September when it came up for a vote on the Senate floor. Collins said she believed the bill was imbalanced in the way it treated corporations and unions in the disclosure requirements. Snowe complained that the measure was designed to provide Democrats an advantage in the November election.



Spokesmen for Snowe and Collins did not return a request for comment.



Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) opposed the bill because he thought the Senate should focus solely on stimulating the economy and creating jobs. His spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho, on Monday said the senator’s opinion hasn’t changed.



The legislation is intended to roll back a Supreme Court ruling from earlier this year that lifted spending restrictions on political advertisements by corporations and unions and other interest groups. The bill would require all groups to register with the Federal Election Commission and to disclose the financial backers of a political advertisement within the message.



After overcoming some serious hurdles, the bill passed the House this summer but was stopped in the Senate in late September when it fell one vote short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster, with Republicans uniformly opposing the bill. Senate Republicans also successfully blocked it in an earlier vote in July.