Democrats' Campaign Finance Bill Faces Hurdles

House Democrats this week will take another run at passing a campaign finance bill that would lay down extensive new requirements for disclosing campaign money from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

The so-called Disclose is a response to the Supreme Court decision that lets corporations and unions spend unlimited amounts in campaigns. But that ruling came five months ago, and the bill's advocates are still scrounging for votes.

In his State of the Union address Jan. 27, President Obama called on Congress to move swiftly before the Supreme Court ruling loosed a flood of corporate money. But neither the promised flood nor a bill House Democrats can agree on have shown up yet.

The White House on Monday pushed harder with an official statement that it supports the bill as is.

"AS it says, this is not a perfect bill and the president thinks that we need to work to make it as strong as humanly possible," spokesman Bill Burton said.

Exemption Criticized

What makes it less than perfect — even in the eyes of its backers — is a special loophole for the National Rifle Association, the gun-rights group with 4 million members that didn't want to disclose its big donors. The NRA had been promising to take revenge on lawmakers who voted for the Disclose Act, putting fear in the hearts of conservative Blue Dog Democrats.

Fred Wertheimer, a leading advocate for the bill, said pro-disclosure groups could do the math.

"We recognize, as everyone in Washington did, that either that exemption was going to be given, or the NRA was going to kill the legislation," Wertheimer said.

So the NRA embraced the bill and liberal groups started coming out against it.

They have the same tax-exempt status as the NRA — all are 501-c-4 advocacy groups — and they want the same exemption from disclosure.

"We all agreed with the goals of the legislation, but you can't create two tiers of speech," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal coalition Alliance for Justice, and a leader of the opposition.

She expresses a sentiment more often heard from conservative groups that oppose all campaign finance bills.

"It's treacherous territory, to say the least, when Congress attempts to regulate speech," Aron said.

That's a view that finds support among liberals in Congress.

Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards suggests the Disclose Act may just reach too far.

"There is an urgency to try to deal with this," Edwards said. "I happen to believe that we have miles to go before we sleep, when it comes to closing the door on corporate special interests influence in our elections, and the Disclose Act may be perhaps the first step toward that."

Conservative Opposition

But if liberal groups are upset about the NRA, so are conservative ones.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre says his job is protecting Second Amendment gun rights.

"We believe the Second Amendment is America's first freedom, it's the one right that protects all the rest," LaPierre said.

But many other conservative groups say the NRA sold out.

"Another special deal done behind closed doors that exempts some of the most powerful political groups in America," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

This week the Chamber put that theme into a new ad.

Meanwhile, the bill's advocates say the infighting in both camps shows just how the special interests look out for themselves.

"All of that is in direct conflict with the interests of the American people, who have a constitutional right to know who's spending money in their elections, and the donors behind that money," Wertheimer said.

House Democratic leaders are trying to assemble enough votes to get the bill passed with some form of the NRA exemption.

A memo circulated Monday reminds lawmakers that the bill will target foreign corporations, such as BP, and financial institutions that received federal bailout funds back in 2008.

If those liberal bogeymen help solidify the Democrats, the leadership could bring the bill to the floor on Tuesday.

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