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Election Reform Measures Moving Forward in Senate

Senate Democrats inched closer Wednesday to launching the chamber’s opening volley of campaign finance fixes this Congress, setting up a vote — perhaps even late Wednesday night — on how Senators disclose their campaign records.

They also announced that controversial election issues like 527s and electronic voting machines may begin facing scrutiny within weeks.

The Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday afternoon voted out of committee the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and more than 25 others, would eliminate an electronic filing exemption for Senate campaigns.

Since Jan. 1, 2001, political action committees, House campaigns and presidential campaigns have been required to file electronic copies of their fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission. But through a combination of Senate prerogative — and, some campaign finance reform advocates claim, political paranoia — Senators exempted themselves from the requirement.

Instead, the Members opted to continue filing with the Secretary of the Senate hard copies of their campaign finance disclosure statements, documents that are usually little more than printouts of forms generated by campaign software. Often hundreds of pages each, Senate fundraising statements are then sent to FEC, which turns them over to ILM Inc., a Northern Virginia contractor, where they are put back into electronic form at a $250,000 annual price tag.

“The current process is both wasteful and scandalous, and serves no other purpose than to hide the sources of campaign contributions from voters until after an election,” the Campaign Legal Center said in a statement Wednesday.

But that could all change. Like all other political organizations — minus 527 groups, which file their financial reports with the Internal Revenue Service — Senators would also be required to file their fundraising and expenditure reports electronically, closing a loophole and putting the chamber on equal footing with other political committees.

But there still will be one difference. To satisfy concerns voiced recently by Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), known as a staunch defender of the Senate’s independence, the documents will take a circuitous and initially expensive route through Senate computer servers before being redirected to the FEC.

The estimated cost of implementing the symbolic trip: $100,000, according to the Office of Public Records.

“All Members will file electronically,” said Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) during Wednesday’s markup. “[An electronic] report will go to the Secretary of the Senate … and she will then send them to the FEC.”

“I explored with [Byrd] whether we could eliminate that step,” she added. “And Sen. Byrd felt strongly it was Senate prerogative.”

Now out of committee and with the support of Democratic leadership, Feinstein is attempting to “hotline” the bill in an effort to nail down the required support for typically non-controversial measures.

“Each Cloakroom has an automatic e-mail and phone system that says: ‘The Leader is ‘hotlining’ this and, if there is any objection, please let us know,” said Rules spokesman Howard Gantman. “We’ve heard no opposition from [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid’s (D-Nev.) office.”

Gantman continued that if no objections surface, the measure then goes to the floor, which often takes a day or so.

But a lot can happen in 24 hours. Despite being widely termed “non-controversial” by Senate Republicans and Democrats alike, reform groups disagree, claiming there is deep suspicion of disclosure parity among some Senators. And with the finish line in sight, some groups are not holding their breath.

“Legislation to solve this campaign finance disclosure problem was first introduced by Senator Feingold in November 2003,” according to a statement Wednesday from Democracy 21. “The fact that it has taken more than three years to get this simple, straightforward disclosure legislation to this stage in the Senate is absurd and a direct result of continuing backroom maneuvers in the Senate to block the bill.”

In its statement, the Campaign Legal Center said the measure has struggled “despite the fact that no Senator has been willing to admit his or her opposition.”

Some advocates speculated in recent days that such backroom maneuvers included adding a so-called poison pill to the bill, which would draw in scores of otherwise uninterested parties and doom the proposal. Rules ranking member Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and other Republicans sought to attach language to the bill involving coordinated spending limits, a controversial move to some Democrats.

Bennett vigorously denied he was attempting to sabotage the bill. With Feinstein’s assurances to revisit coordinated spending limits along with a half-dozen or more campaign finance matters during the coming weeks, Bennett agreed to remove the language.

“I’m not trying to gum up the works,” Bennett said at Wednesday’s markup. “I’m not trying to sneak anything by anybody.”

With the bill now out of committee, Gantman predicted Wednesday evening that the measure could be approved by unanimous consent as early as Wednesday night, after Roll Call press time. If it gets out of the Senate, the House would be required to pass its own version because the proposal would amend public law. Gantman doubted there would be any delay in the House.

“If it would have been amended with a number of different campaign finance issues that ultimately would have impacted House and Senate Members, they would’ve brought it up for [more] hearings,” he said.

Feinstein also said Wednesday that the Rules panel within weeks may begin tackling other long-sought-after campaign finance overhauls now pending before the committee. Feinstein said she is planning tentatively to hold hearings next month on electronic voting reform and coordinated-spending limits. In May and June, she said the panel will hold hearings on 527s, voter registration, deceptive campaign practices and public financing for Congressional campaigns.

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