Democrats and President Obama were dealt a setback Tuesday in the Senate, when the majority party failed to break a GOP filibuster of an election-year campaign finance bill.
The Democratic measure aims to blunt the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision to allow unlimited campaign spending by corporations, unions and other groups. But Senate Republicans closed ranks to block the bill.
Democrats call it the DISCLOSE Act — short for the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act. It has been passed by the House, and President Obama on Monday urged the Senate to do the same.
"A vote to oppose these reforms is nothing less than a vote to allow corporate and special interest takeovers of our elections," he said.
But not one Republican voted to let the bill come up for consideration, and the measure fell shy of the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster.
Shortly before the vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid portrayed his fellow Democrats as following the will of the American people.
"I believe the majority of the Senate believes — and the overwhelming majority of the American people believe — the Supreme Court made a mistake with their decision in Citizens United," he said. "We cannot reverse its decision, but we can make sure that those who spend millions of dollars telling us how to vote publicly stand by their efforts."
The bill requires full disclosure of the groups or corporations that pay for campaign ads. It also bans certain groups from that kind of campaign spending — foreign-controlled corporations, government contractors and firms that received government bailout funds known as TARP.
But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said what the bill really boiled down to was an attempt by Democrats to protect their incumbents in this fall's midterm elections.
"This is a transparent effort to rig the fall election," he said. "There've been no hearings, no committee action."
McConnell pointed out that New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who sponsored the campaign finance bill, is the former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and said the measure was "riddled with special advantages for Democratic-leaning groups and punishment for Republican-leaning groups."
But not all the groups favored by the bill are closely aligned with Democrats. As Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett pointed out, House Democrats earlier altered the DISCLOSE Act to carve out some strategic exemptions.
"The DISCLOSE Act listens to the outcry of some corporations, such as the National Rifle Association, and says, 'Well, we won't make it apply to you.' And thus, demonstrates that it's responding to political pressure from people who say, 'We will punish you at the polls if you take away our right of free speech,' " he said.
But Schumer said Tuesday's vote by no means spells the bill's demise.
"We will go back at this bill again and again and again until we pass it," he said. "It's that vital — not to Democrats, not to Republicans, but to the future of people's faith in the functioning of this government."
Claremont McKenna College congressional expert Jack Pitney says Democrats clearly intend to make Tuesday's vote a campaign issue this fall.
"Although, ultimately, the issue is probably not going to have much impact," he says. "As we've learned in recent years, campaign finance reform just is not a high priority for most people."
But it's clearly a priority for Democrats, who fear the Citizens United decision will give an edge to Republicans next fall.