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Senators Differ on Easing Coordinated Spending Limits

It is one of the lasting memories of the 2006 midterm elections.

“I met Harold at the Playboy party,” claims a barely clad, squeaky-voiced blond woman in a television spot aired last fall by the Republican National Committee during the close Senate race between former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R) and then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).

With a wink and a smile, she closes out the ad with a whisper: “Harold, call me.”

Now, more than six months later, the ad continues to spark controversy but this time far, far away from the national spotlight. Looking to tweak the law that created the infamous ad, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee held a hearing Wednesday in an attempt to prove that the legal rationale for the law may prove as controversial as the ad’s substance.

In the 2008 election cycle, national parties can spend $81,800 in coordination with House candidates in states with only one Representative, according to guidelines set forth by the Federal Election Commission. For the majority of states with two House Members, national parties can spend $40,900 in coordination with candidate committees and, in some cases, up to $2.2 million in certain Senate races.

Once those limits are reached, national parties can then pay out unlimited sums for broadcast ads, so long as they do not collaborate with candidate committees while doing so — even to tell the committee to pull the ad.

This was the case with the Ford “bimbo” ad. Corker, who denounced the ad, was unable to demand directly that it be pulled from the airwaves.

“The ad could not be taken down at the request of the candidate or at the request of the party because it was being aired through an independent expenditure unit of the RNC,” Corker’s office said in a recent statement.

“If the candidate or the party had communicated directly with the independent expenditure unit, that communication would have put the parties involved in violation of federal law and Federal Election Commission regulations, and had the request been done knowingly and willfully, criminal sanctions could have resulted.”

But tweaking the law on coordinated expenditures may be easier said than done. Senate Democrats appear hesitant to open up the law and pile on unforeseen consequences, and some experts dispute that the problem is even that widespread.

“I think the problem we are trying to address is overstated,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer at Perkins Coie in Washington, D.C., during his testimony before the committee Wednesday.

Elias, a lead lawyer in Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) failed 2004 presidential bid who also represents numerous Democratic candidates and party committees, said a primary concern is that any change in the law “will not be a rifle shot, but rather will be a shotgun blast.”

“[The] limits tie to a number of provisions and policies that are contained in” campaign finance law, Elias said at Wednesday’s hearing. “If you remove that provision, you are going to dramatically change and alter the landscape in which campaigns and parties operate.”

Elias also said that lifting the limits would have the greatest impact “in small states or Congressional districts where the party holding that seat is in the minority of the electorate.”

“Right now, one of the impediments to mounting competitive challenges in that circumstance is the inability of the party to recruit a candidate who can raise significant funds to make the seat competitive,” Elias continued. “That impediment would be removed … because parties will essentially be able to come in and take over the entire campaign.”

But Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and other Republicans disagree and are surprised the issue is even controversial. In fact, Bennett attempted to add the measure to a bill that would require Senators to file campaign finance disclosure statements electronically.

“I’m trying to clean up a particularly ridiculous aspect of campaign finance law to which — as far as I can tell — there is no objection,” Bennett said in a March 28 hearing on the disclosure bill.

Some called Bennett’s amendment a poison pill, and he removed it from the disclosure bill after Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) agreed to schedule Wednesday’s hearing.

Senate Democratic leadership declined to comment on whether it will support the bill, which was sponsored by Corker, but Feinstein seemed skeptical. Senate GOP leadership supports the bill.

“Without the limits, many of us fear that the parties could essentially channel these higher amounts into the candidate’s campaign,” Feinstein said. “It could also allow the party to essentially move its own operation into a state and take over a flagging campaign. Before we open up a major loophole, I think we need to look long and hard at the ramifications.”

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