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Markup Alters Face of Senate’s 527 Bill

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee reported out a bill Wednesday aimed at subjecting so-called 527 organizations to the same restrictions imposed on other political entities, but not before adding more than a half-dozen provisions that could undermine support among those who drafted the original measure.

Even though the underlying bill counts supporters and proponents on both sides of the aisle, the hearing at times brimmed with partisan tension, and at one point it seemed as though a procedural issue could derail the entire markup.

But that wasn’t the only drama. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) withdrew his name as a co-sponsor of the legislation and then offered an amendment, approved by voice vote, that would remove the bill’s restrictions on the ability of 527s to use soft money to fund voter-registration and mobilization efforts.

Seven other amendments accepted by the panel were offered by Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and would, among other things, increase limits and index for inflation contributions to political action committees; prohibit the Federal Election Commission from regulating campaign activity on the Internet; and raise from $15,000 to $25,000 the amount PACs can give to the national parties.

Yet another amendment, offered by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would require television stations to charge candidates the lowest commercial rate they offer other, nonpolitical organizations throughout the year. Durbin said that by not dealing with the “demand-side” of the money equation, lawmakers will continuously have to raise more and more money to keep up with what he deems overcharging by TV stations.

Durbin’s amendment was included in the Senate’s version of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 but was taken out in conference. “It was taken out in the House of Representatives, God bless them, because they don’t buy as much TV time as we do.”

The amended bill was sent to the floor heavily laden with what could be possibly debilitating amendments. The measure’s sponsors, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), have consistently said they will oppose efforts to turn the legislation into a “Christmas tree” for opponents of BCRA.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who also sponsored the bill, strongly opposed BCRA and has long been skeptical of campaign finance reform in general. But he said Wednesday that where there are “clear problems,” such as the use of soft money by 527 groups, they should be addressed.

Named after the section of the tax code under which they operate, the independent political organizations spent more than $400 million to influence the last election.

Lott said he supported many of the amendments, but worried aloud Wednesday that they could ultimately prevent the measure from being enacted. Sponsors of BCRA and the independent groups that support a “clean” version of his 527 bill may turn around and oppose it if they feel it weakens the 2002 statute or other post-Watergate reforms. Lott said his first priority was taking care of this “527 business before we’re all embarrassed.”

But it isn’t at all clear that the biggest challenges the 527 bill faces are from the amendments adopted Wednesday. Even if passed by the Senate, the legislation would still have to make it through a conference committee with the House, a prospect many who support the measure aren’t enthusiastic about.

Last week the House Administration Committee held a hearing on two very different proposals to reduce the influence of 527s.

The first bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), is a companion measure to McCain-Feingold-Lott in the Senate and would prohibit 527s from raising and spending soft money and put them under the purview of the Federal Election Commission. The second, sponsored by Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.), would leave 527s untouched and instead dramatically relax some of the restrictions on how the parties raise and spend hard dollars.

Among other things, the Pence-Wynn proposal would remove the aggregate contribution limits that BCRA imposed on individuals giving to influence federal elections; remove limits on how much the parties can spend in coordination with candidates; and allow state and local parties to spend soft money on voter registration drives for elections, including those involving federal candidates.

Although he has not come out in support of either measure, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) seemed favorably disposed toward the Pence-Wynn measure in some form at the hearing, either as a combined bill with Shays-Meehan or on its own.

That’s precisely what Schumer and others fear. “I am worried that this bill is a Trojan horse,” Schumer said. “I am sort of getting the feeling here that we don’t care what’s in this bill” because the real work will be done on the floor or in conference.

Lott did not altogether dismiss the notion, saying at one point that he just wanted to get the bill to the Senate floor and work everything out in conference.

“I may get rolled in conference, but I may not,” Lott said.

“That’s a big risk, Mr. Chairman,” Schumer responded, adding that he believes the odds are high that the House Republican position will prevail in conference, if those who opposed BCRA in the Senate don’t get to the bill on the Senate floor first.

“From little tea leaves you can see this happening,” Schumer warned.

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