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Campaign Bill Splits Democrats

Compromise With NRA Soured Some in Majority, but Others Cite Necessity

House Democratic leaders expressed confidence that they will have the support to move forward — as soon as today — with a campaign finance package that has taken intense fire this week after its drafters exempted the National Rifle Association from new disclosure requirements.

Democratic leaders are in a hurry to pass the measure before campaign season hits full tilt. The package would roll back a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, which lifted limits on corporate and union political spending by forcing groups participating in elections to name their top donors.

The deal with the gun lobby, which leaders deemed critical for garnering make-or-break support from pro-gun Democrats, has set off a cascade of denunciations from lawmakers and outside groups across the ideological spectrum.

Democratic leaders were hustling to contain the fallout on Wednesday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the measure’s architect, held an afternoon huddle with liberal Democrats to sell the compromise as a necessary and relatively harmless step to salvage the package.

They appeared to convince at least some skeptical liberals. “It’s something that’s bearable and you gotta do. It’s the price of passing the bill,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) said after the meeting. And Rep. Jared Polis (Colo.), a co-sponsor of the original bill, said even with the amendment, the measure was “far better” than the status quo.

But others signaled the deal had soured them on the overall package, and they were now considering opposing it. “It’s hard for me to envision how you do a bill that’s designed to protect against special interest influence and create a protection for a special interest,” Rep. Donna Edwards (Md.) said.

Democratic aides and officials with left-leaning outside groups also carped that party leaders had engineered a carve-out for a group that, for the most part, supports Republicans. The NRA’s political action committee directed 78 percent of its contributions — or about $860,000 — to Republicans in the 2008 election cycle. And it has since favored the minority with 71 percent of its contributions, or about $336,000, through the end of April. “You’re talking about passing into law a bill of attainder for the NRA — a private bill to benefit them,” one House Democratic chief of staff said. “Why in the hell are we doing that?”

And two days after that deal was announced, new voices from both the public and private sectors spoke up to pan it. A letter to Pelosi from a long list of left-leaning nonprofit groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, pledged to oppose the package in its current form. “It is inappropriate and inequitable to create a two-tiered system of campaign finance laws and First Amendment protections, one for the most powerful and influential and another for everyone else,” the letter read.

And a powerhouse roster of industry trade groups — including the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association — wrote House Members, arguing the bill is an unconstitutional attempt to silence business and advantage labor. The groups called the bill “a direct attack on the rights of the business community and the role our organizations play in the national political dialogue.”

But some major labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, remained on the fence pending negotiations with leaders about remaining concerns with the bill. Leaders agreed to tweak the package to remove a provision labor groups complained would slap an excise tax on some of their political spending, but a union source said they were still in talks on other items.

Other problems loom. Some anti-
abortion-rights Democrats said they planned to oppose the legislation after the National Right to Life Committee announced its objections. Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) confirmed he is among them. Even Democrats who earned the ire of that group by voting for the health care overhaul earlier this year are not eager to give the organization another reason to target them. “A vote like this makes it easier for groups to make the bogus argument that pro-life Democrats aren’t really pro-life at all,” an aide to one anti-
abortion-rights Democrat said. “This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Leaders, meanwhile, were still searching for large organizations aside from the NRA that would qualify for the exemption that was admittedly tailored for the gun lobby. The language gives a pass to any 501(c)(4) group that has more than 1 million members, at least one in every state, has existed for 10 years and gets no more than 15 percent of its funding from corporate or union sources.

Leadership sources earlier this week suggested AARP and the Humane Society of the United States also met that standard. But Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said his organization’s main group is registered under a different section of the tax code, while its 501(c)(4) is relatively new and not large enough to qualify. And AARP spokesman Jim Dau said the exemption was a moot point for the seniors lobby, since it “does not engage in express candidate advocacy.”

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