WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans beat back Democratic attempts Tuesday to pass a bill that would impose stringent disclosure requirements on corporations, unions and other independent groups that finance ads for political campaigns.
Ignoring pleas for passage from President Barack Obama, not a single Republican voted for a motion to limit debate and proceed toward final passage of the so-called DISCLOSE Act. Without Republican support, the debate-limit motion failed 57-41, falling short of the 60 votes required under Senate rules to shut off debate.
The failure puts the entire bill in jeopardy, though Democratic leaders could seek to revive it later.
Senate Democrats even made late changes to the bill - removing a provision that Republicans perceived as union-friendly - in an unsuccessful attempt to lure Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., Susan Collins, R-Maine, or Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to their side.
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However, Democrats were in a hole even without the New England Republicans because Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, was attending a funeral and missed Tuesday's vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, was the only Democrat to vote with Republicans in a tactical move that will allow him to bring up the bill again at a later date.
"The message we have is this is the first battle, but not the end of the war," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the bill's author, shortly after the vote. "We will keep fighting and fighting and fighting until this passes, until we get that one courageous Republican..."
Republicans argued that the bill is unconstitutional because it would impose a restriction on free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. They also said that the measure's true purpose was to stifle the flow of campaign ads against vulnerable Democratic incumbents in November's elections.
"The bill we're about to vote on here ... is about jobs all right. It's about saving Democratic senators' jobs," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters. "Talk about transparency, this is a transparent effort to rig the fall elections. There were no hearings, no committee action. It was written by Senator Schumer, the former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, riddled with special advantages for Democratic-leaning groups and punishment for Republican-leaning groups."
Senate Democrats said it was Republicans who were playing election year politics, and they vowed to keep bringing the bill up until it passes.
"You know, it wasn't too long ago that greater disclosure in election spending was a bipartisan concept," Reid said. "But just as quickly as they ran to the side of big business and the insurance companies, and big banks and the oil companies, Senate Republicans are now running away from transparency and accountability in our elections."
The Senate bill would require most independent groups, including labor unions and corporations, to disclose the names of the top five donors whose money helped fund political ads. It also would require corporate and union executives to appear in political ads that their organizations help pay for and state that that he or she "approves this message," as candidates currently do in campaign commercials.
The bill also would prevent the use of federal TARP money in elections and curb foreign nationals and countries from contributing to campaigns.
The House of Representatives version passed on a 219-206 vote last month, despite objections from liberal Democrats and some government watchdog groups to an exemption carved out primarily to keep the National Rifle Association from pressuring moderate Democrats to vote against the bill.
Democrats crafted the DISCLOSE Act after the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in January — the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission — which struck down decades-old laws barring corporations and unions from directly supporting campaigns.
President Obama denounced that ruling in his State of the Union address:
"With all due deference to separation of powers ... the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities," Obama said.
As he said that, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito could be seen seated before the president shaking his head and muttering "not true."
Opposition to the bill has created strange political bedfellows. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes it, saying it chokes off political free speech. The AFL-CIO announced its opposition to the Senate bill in a letter to senators Tuesday.
"The Senate bill imposes extraordinary new, costly, and impractical record-keeping and reporting obligations on thousands of labor (and other non-profit) organizations, with regard to routine inter-affiliate payments that bear little or no connection about federal elections," the letter said.
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