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NRA Disclosure Deal Draws Fire

Liberals Split on Whether Carve-Out Undercuts Campaign Reform Measure

The deal that House Democratic leaders cut with the National Rifle Association to earn the gun lobby’s neutrality on a campaign finance bill came in for harsh criticism from across the political spectrum on Tuesday, presenting new challenges for the package even as leadership pushes for floor action this week.

Liberal lawmakers and outside groups bristled over what they called a double standard created by the carve-out, which exempts very large membership organizations from the measure’s disclosure requirements.

The question for leaders is whether the liberal backlash is enough to stop a bill that the White House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her team agree is a winner both politically and on its merits. Democrats already were facing an unknown number of defections from their most politically vulnerable Members worried about stiff opposition to the package from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Right to Life Committee and others.

Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — who has led efforts to craft the bill, officially the DISCLOSE Act — expressed optimism about its prospects. “I’m pleased with the progress that has been made,” he said in a statement, pointing to a joint statement Tuesday from five government reform groups endorsing both the deal and the broader bill. “Reform in Washington is never easy — that is why powerful special interests are mobilizing against our efforts to shine a light on campaign-related spending. The vast majority of Americans on the right, left, and in the center support these efforts and I am confident that when the bill comes to the House floor it will pass.”

The bill comes in response to the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case in January. That 5-4 decision knocked down many limits on political spending by corporations and unions; the legislation seeks to answer the ruling by beefing up disclosure, political coordination and disclaimer requirements.

The NRA — a fearsome grass-roots force with a solid House majority eager to maintain its support — was in a position to single-handedly sink the package. Hence Democratic leaders and government reform groups eager to see the broader bill enacted into law hatched a carve-out that exempts groups that are at least 10 years old, claim more than 1 million members, have operations in all 50 states and take no more than 15 percent of their money from corporate or union sources. The NRA pledged Tuesday to remain neutral on the bill as long as the exemption remained.

While specifically tailored for the gun lobby, a Democratic leadership aide said AARP and the Humane Society might also qualify.

Groups including Democracy 21, Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters lined up behind the compromise as necessary for moving the bill.

But other outside groups advocating government transparency decried the deal. Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation said she was “beyond outraged.” Miller said, “It is so damaging to this legislation, we have to wonder whether the bill will be worth anything.” And U.S. PIRG, which had backed the measure, said it would now oppose it as long as it contains the exemption.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Tuesday he is surveying liberals to see if there is enough opposition to the deal to give them leverage to renegotiate it with leadership. Grijalva himself said he was undecided on final passage of the measure — and could consider ultimately supporting the bill if he is allowed a separate vote against the exemption. “The reaction of many of us was this was one more concession on what was otherwise a good piece of legislation, and we didn’t like it,” he said.

And Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a leading gun control advocate, likewise said she remained undecided on final passage. “I have a concern more so with the NRA putting their fingerprint on too much of our legislation,” she said. “If people want to change that, they’ve got to start standing up, too.”

Remaining hurdles notwithstanding, a Democratic leadership aide said the bill is on track to hit the floor this week. “We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” the aide said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced a companion measure in the Senate, but its chances there remain uncertain. He struggled, without success, to find a Republican co-sponsor for that measure — and Senate Democratic leaders have since told their counterparts across the Capitol that House passage will give the measure the boost it needs in their chamber. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday ripped the House carve-out. “Just as it wasn’t the Democrats’ money to offer in the health care debate, free speech isn’t theirs to ration out to those willing to play ball — it’s a right guaranteed by our First Amendment to all Americans,” he said in a statement.

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