Eager to shore up their fragile House and Senate majorities, congressional Democrats have enlisted their committee chairmen in an early blitz to bring millions of dollars into the party's coffers, culminating in a late-March event featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 10 of the powerful panel chairs.
In the next 10 days alone, Democratic fundraisers will feature the chairmen of the House's financial services panel and the House and Senate tax-writing committees. Senate Democrats also plan a fundraising reception during a major gathering of Native Americans in the capital Tuesday evening, an event hosted by lobbyists and the political action committee for tribal casinos, including those Jack Abramoff was paid to represent.
Critics deride the aggressive fundraising push as the kind of business as usual that voters rejected at the ballot box last November -- particularly the practice of giving interest groups access to committee chairmen in exchange for sizable donations -- but Democrats are unapologetic.
"Financial services companies are inclined to give to me because I'm chairman of the committee important to their interests," said Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, who will headline a breakfast Wednesday at a D.C. hotel, for which donations range from $1,000 to $15,000 for the Democratic National Committee. "I'm fundraising to give to others so I can help stay in the majority and do the public policy things I want."
Asked whether banking interests feel obligated to give to Democrats when he asks them for contributions, Frank answered: "Obligated? No. Incentivized? Yes." Frank said, however, that those donating "understand, and others do, too, that there are no guarantees of my doing what they want, or even my being pleasant."
"I'm getting a lot of fundraising invitations," said Robert E. Juliano, a Democratic lobbyist. "It's no different than any other year."
The invitation to Frank's DNC event, which notes in bold letters that the Massachusetts Democrat is chairman of the financial services panel, was sent to financial-industry lobbyists and financial companies, among others.
Earlier this month, Frank traveled to Charlotte, home to two of America's largest bank companies, for a similar fundraising breakfast, for a fellow Financial Services Committee member, Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). Donors got to hear firsthand about Frank's plans for upcoming banking legislation. He assured attendees that more federal regulation of banking is on the way and that it will help banks to prosper.
Financial interests will have several opportunities in the coming weeks to make contributions and attend events that will put them close to lawmakers important to their industries.
The leaders of the two tax-writing committees -- House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) -- are planning a rare and expensive joint fundraising reception in New York on March 4. The event, which costs between $1,500 and $9,200 a person, is to be held at the Upper East Side home of public relations executive Howard J. Rubenstein.
The Democrats' push will culminate late next month when Pelosi and 10 of her chairmen huddle with donors at the Northern Virginia home of shopping-center developer Albert J. Dwoskin for an event to benefit the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The asking price for the March 21 dinner is $28,500 per couple, making it one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's highest-dollar fundraisers since new campaign finance limits were enacted in 2002.
In addition to Pelosi and Frank, other senior House Democrats slated to attend include John D. Dingell (Mich.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee, David R. Obey (Wis.) of the Appropriations Committee, Ike Skelton (Mo.) of the Armed Services Committee, John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) of the Judiciary Committee, George Miller (Calif.) of the Education and Labor Committee, and James L. Oberstar (Minn.) of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
House Democrats hope to raise between $650,000 and $1 million for each of the party's most endangered Democrats in hopes of keeping the party in control of Congress.
The tactics are hardly new. Republicans aggressively used their committee chairmen -- and the promise of access to them -- to raise money from interest groups and lobbyists during the party's 12 years of congressional control. They tracked donations closely and pressed lobbying firms to hire GOP lobbyists through the "K Street Project," promising "intimate" issue briefings with the chairmen in return for big donations.
And the GOP is hardly sitting on the sidelines this year. Republicans are also using their top lawmakers on committees to haul in donations. Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on Transportation and Infrastructure, is scheduled to headline a "transportation luncheon" fundraiser in coming days for fellow House Republican Jerry Moran (Kan.).
The event was originally scheduled to be held at a Capitol Hill townhouse owned by the American Trucking Association but has since been moved to a restaurant. Donors are being asked to contribute between $1,000 and $2,500.
Likewise, Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, is advertised as the featured guest at a "homeland security dinner" at the French-style Les Halles restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW to help raise money for sophomore Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.).
But it was in part a Republican lobbying scandal -- GOP lobbyist Abramoff's defrauding of Indian tribal clients and the subsequent investigation into his efforts to influence lawmakers with lavish gifts -- that gave Democrats their opening to regain control of Congress. Democrats took over in January after a campaign that accused Republicans of fostering a "culture of corruption" in Washington and "selling access" to lawmakers. Abramoff has been convicted of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy and is in federal prison.
Now, with the tables turned, Democrats are courting Abramoff's most famous clientele -- Indian tribes.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's upcoming fundraiser was planned to coincide with a meeting in Washington of the National Congress of American Indians. It is being hosted by a law firm that lobbies for tribal casinos and the National Indian Gaming Association's political action committee.
The association represents more than 100 tribes with casinos or gambling operations, including those Abramoff was paid to represent. Last year, former Abramoff clients such as the Saginaw Chippewa, Agua Caliente and Mississippi Choctaw gave money to fund the PAC.
Organizers with the gaming association said they had no confirmation as of yesterday whether any of the Abramoff clients would be attending the event, but Democratic fundraisers said they were still trying to organize a second donor event that could involve a few of the tribes that were entangled with Abramoff.
Democrats reject any parallels to the Abramoff saga. "Abramoff was involved in a pervasive culture of corruption," said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Native Americans have every right to participate in the political process just like Americans across the country do."
Government-watchdog groups are chagrined but not surprised by the rush of high-level Democratic fundraising. "Coming so close on the heels of winning last year's election based on changing the so-called culture of corruption in Washington, it's unseemly, but it's completely predictable," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Democrats, like the Republicans before them, need the cash to maintain their majority status, and when you are in the majority it is much easier to collect the money."
House Democrats' principal fundraiser, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), wrote a memo last month indicating that he wanted House members in difficult-to-defend seats to have $650,000 to $1 million in the bank by June 30 -- 16 months before Election Day -- in order to deter Republican challengers. Veteran fundraisers say that goal would be ambitious for the end of an election cycle, let alone the beginning.
Democratic spokesmen sought to portray the upcoming fundraisers as commonplace. "The senior Democrats on the committees and the leadership have always been very supportive of DCCC efforts," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.