Senate Democrats again fail to pass campaign disclosure law

By Dan Eggen Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 11:10 PM

Senate Democrats failed again Thursday in their attempt to require corporations, unions and other interest groups to provide more details about their political spending.

The measure, known as the Disclose Act, fell one vote short of the 60 needed to break a GOP filibuster in the divided Senate, with Republicans uniformly opposed to the bill. The legislation had also been blocked by Senate Republicans during an earlier vote in July.

The 59-39 vote marks a bitter defeat for Democratic leaders and President Obama, who has repeatedly urged Congress to pass the bill in response to a Supreme Court ruling lifting restrictions on corporate and union political spending.

The outcome represents a major victory for Republicans and major business groups, which lobbied hard against a proposal that they said was an attempt by Democrats to silence GOP-leaning business groups.

Sen. John Cornyn ((R-Tex.) called the proposal a "cynical, partisan bill designed to silence the free speech of Congress's critics and to protect Democrat incumbents."

Proponents argued that voters deserve to know the identities of donors bankrolling outside advertising that has played an increasingly pivotal role in U.S. elections. Under the bill defeated Thursday, corporations and most interest groups would have been subject to stricter financial disclosure requirements.

The measure also would have broadened restrictions on foreign-controlled companies and required heads of companies and interest groups to appear on camera during their political spots.

Democratic leaders expressed frustration Thursday at the unwillingness of GOP moderates, such as Maine Sens. Susan Collins (R) or Olympia Snowe (R), to allow the measure to move forward. Democratic leaders had signaled a willingness to debate changes to the legislation, including delaying its implementation until January.

"Republicans continue to block the Senate from even debating common-sense oversight to bring transparency to our campaign finance laws," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. "The outcome of today's vote shows the difference between Democrats who believe voters should be in control of our elections and Republicans who want to allow big corporations to buy their outcomes behind closed doors."

Interest groups and political parties have reported $87 million in independent spending so far in this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Democratic aides had acknowledged even before Thursday's vote that they were unlikely to get any Republicans to break ranks with their party. But several aides said they were hopeful the defeat would provide benefits by allowing Democrats to tie the GOP to corporate interests ahead of the midterm elections.

The legislation, which passed the House in a different form earlier this year, was drafted as a response to the 5 to 4 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court found that corporations had the same rights as individuals to engage in political speech and could therefore spend as much as they wanted for or against specific candidates.

Obama pointedly criticized the ruling during his State of the Union address, prompting an unusual public objection weeks later by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The president and other White House aides have continued to focus on the decision as opening the door to abuses by corporations and had made passage of the Disclose Act a top legislative priority.

In his weekly radio address last Saturday, for example, Obama blasted Republicans for opposing the bill. "A partisan minority in Congress is hoping their defense of these special interests and the status quo will be rewarded with a flood of negative ads against their opponents," Obama said. "It's a power grab, pure and simple."

Despite the Disclose Act defeat, activists in favor of changing campaign finance rules celebrated a small victory in the House on Thursday: The Committee on House Administration passed the Fair Elections Now Act, which would allow candidates to receive 4-to-1 matching funds culled from broadcasting license fees by agreeing to limit themselves to donations of $100 or less. The fate of the bill remains unclear, however.

Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

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