In Congress, A Showdown Over Campaign Money

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US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (L), R-KY, talks with Senator Richard Shelby (C), R-AL, and Senator Jud Gregg (R), R-NH, as they leave the closed door meeting of the Senate Republican Caucus on April 28, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

So far this year, proponents of tougher campaign finance laws have been on a losing streak. They have two big bills they still hope Congress will vote on this summer -- though both face opposition.

So far this year, proponents of tougher campaign finance laws have been on a losing streak. Federal courts have rolled back restrictions on campaign spending by interest groups and well-to-do activists. And the Supreme Court has given the OK to corporations that want to play politics.

But those proponents have two big bills they still hope Congress will vote on this summer.

One of the bills is a direct response to the Supreme Court decision. It would mandate disclosure of corporate and union money in election campaigns. Democrats have been working on it since January, when the high court ruling came down and the White House, among others, predicted a flood of corporate political spending.

That flood hasn't hit -- at least so far.

"There are opportunities there that the corporate community is interested in exploring," says Ken Gross, a Washington lawyer who advises corporate clients on campaign finance law. "I expect to see spending evolving by the fall. I don't know that it's going to overwhelm people. But I think we're going to see specific instances where trade associations, funded by corporate interests, are going to start to move into this space in a meaningful way."

An Election-Year Debate

The disclosure bill passed the House in June. But in the Senate, it faces the familiar hurdle of a Republican filibuster.

"This bill isn't about preserving any principle of transparency. It's about protecting incumbent Democratic politicians," says Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Nobody knows if the bill can get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. None of the three most likely Republican supporters seems to be moving closer to a "yes" vote. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts came out against it last week, saying it tilts in favor of Democrats and labor unions. A spokesman for Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe said she's giving a higher priority to a jobs bill and other measures. And Sen. Susan Collins, also of Maine, has given signals that she would oppose the bill. The bill's advocates say they won't give up on any of the three.

And in this election year, the bill's fate will be an issue either way.

Craig Holman, a political-money analyst with the liberal group Public Citizen, says the issue is important to voters. "Put all senators on a roll call vote, put their name behind if they oppose or support opening the books on money in politics, because voters do indeed care about this," he says.

All About The Money

Meanwhile, there's a perky little issue ad popping up in several markets.

"Wall Street gets a bailout. We don't. BP destroys the Gulf. We pay the price. Congress keeps putting special interests first. Why?" the ad asks. "Isn't it obvious? Campaign money. Billions of dollars of it."

The ad is promoting a bill to provide public financing for congressional elections -- a system that's been adopted in several states but has always been rejected by Congress.

In the House, 156 representatives are co-sponsoring the bill. Outside groups have raised millions to advertise, and they have organized advocacy campaigns in 24 states.

The lead co-sponsor is Rep. John Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He says that politics nowadays isn't so much about candidates or issues -- it's mainly about money.

"How much money have they raised; how much cash do they have on hand? You know, that is the fundamental test," he says.

'So-Called Reform'

Larson hopes to see the bill voted out of committee this month and brought to the House floor in September.

Getting a Senate vote on it before Election Day would be a long shot, to say the least. Still, Larson likes the vision of Congress without the perpetual money chase: "It would change the culture. There's no question about it."

But here's the rub with public financing: Do voters want to pay for congressional campaigns, or see the costs added to the national debt?

Sean Parnell thinks not.

Parnell is the president of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics. He says that those he calls "the so-called reformers" have simply come to a dead end.

"And for them, the lack of success is simply evidence of, well, they need more so-called reform -- they need to keep doing the same thing that they've been doing for 40 years that has not worked," he says. "And I think that a lot of people are starting to question them." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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