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Battle Brewing Over FEC Choice

The confirmation process to fill the six-member Federal Election Commission typically ends with a thud. Steeped initially with posturing and rhetoric, insiders say backroom deals usually render it the ultimate mash-up of politics and bureaucratic quid pro quo: Party leaders make their picks, show the other side their hand and, if both sides nod in agreement, they split the pot by pushing through the nominees in pairs.

But two weeks before the Senate is slated to extend the terms of four sitting FEC commissioners, some agency watchers predict a brewing controversy involving Republican Commissioner Hans von Spakovsky may throw a wrench into the normally sleepy process.

Senate Republicans and Democrats both declined to elaborate ahead of the June 13 confirmation hearing, but the Senate Rules and Administration Committee’s Democratic spokesman, Howard Gantman, hinted that Democratic nominees Robert Lenhard and Steven Walther and Republican nominees von Spakovsky and David Mason will have to defend their careers individually — a vast departure from the two most recent confirmations, which passed by unanimous consent in the dead of night.

“There are four nominees and the hearing will review each one’s record,” Gantman said. “There will be an evaluation.”

Of the four commissioners up for confirmation, three are serving on White House recess appointments that expire at the end of the year. Mason, through a complex confluence of legal changes, also must be reconfirmed but may essentially serve indefinitely on the commission, unlike his term-limited colleagues.

One source familiar with the confirmation process suggested that Democrats may have Republicans right where they want them, especially regarding von Spakovsky, a White House choice to sit on the commission. Many of von Spakovsky’s detractors allege he is little more than a GOP henchman, methodically abusing voting rights statutes going back to his days as a local party chairman and up though his tenure at the Justice Department’s voting rights section immediately before arriving at the commission last year.

With news reports piling up daily, the source said, it is becoming increasingly unlikely Senate Republicans will stick their necks out for a controversial nominee who has few ties to Capitol Hill. Without their support, the source said, his nomination likely is doomed.

“A lot depends on whether the White House is prepared to fight for him, and whether or not they have any buy-in from the Senators to fight for him,” the source said. “It may be difficult for him. Republicans aren’t exactly going out of their way to cozy up the president right now.”

And with the link between potential voting rights abuses and the U.S. attorney firings scandal, it may take little prodding for the White House and other Republicans to allow von Spakovsky to become the controversy’s next sacrificial lamb.

“It would be easy to make him one because Republicans wouldn’t have to do anything … they wouldn’t have to withdraw the nomination,” the source speculated. “They could just let it happen.”

An early departure by von Spakovsky could set off a chain reaction on commission, giving Democrats an even greater advantage well into 2008. Earlier this year, Republican Michael Toner stepped down from the commission before a replacement was nominated, giving Democrats an automatic 3-2 advantage. Nearly six months later, the White House has not named his potential successor.

The coming days could be decisive for determining von Spakovsky’s support from Senate Republicans. If it becomes apparent between now and June 13 that von Spakovsky’s alleged actions at the Justice Department amounted to more than just partisan mischief, the source suggested that von Spakovsky should begin looking for work.

“If it comes down to voter identification, Republicans may get on board,” the source predicted. “But if it comes down to voting rights violations, Republicans will run.”

Should Senate Republicans decide to back the controversial commissioner, the source said, one way to force Democrats to capitulate on von Spakovsky may be to recruit campaign finance reformers to line up in opposition to Lenhard, a former union lawyer.

“Are Republicans willing to beat up Lenhard even though he takes positions they agree with?” the source hypothesized. “But make an alliance with reformers so they can get von Spakovsky?”

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