It was an uncharacteristically rough week for Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
The Maryland Democrat, who is widely viewed as a possible future Speaker, has thrown himself into the middle of the legislative push to roll back a controversial Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporate political spending. But the months-long effort blew up last week — just as it was finally due to hit the floor — after a deal that Van Hollen crafted to win the support of the National Rifle Association sparked a firestorm of criticism from across the ideological spectrum both on and off Capitol Hill.
Van Hollen, who serves as both the Assistant to the Speaker and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and other leaders are committed to salvaging the package. Along with the White House, House leaders consider it a top political priority to block an expected flood of corporate money onto an already challenging cycle. And with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dead set on forging ahead, there remains a strong likelihood that her team will muscle a tweaked version through the chamber this week.
The outcome — and whether the measure can move in the Senate — will weigh on Van Hollen’s stock in a Caucus through which he has risen quickly.
The process has already underlined a long-running skepticism of Van Hollen’s handling of dicey political issues among some of the most conservative Democrats, who believe that as head of the DCCC, he is insensitive to their challenges defending seats deep in Republican territory. On the campaign finance bill, the knocks from that corner of the Caucus and their allies in leadership have centered on the Van Hollen camp’s coordination with government reform groups, which have pushed for the strongest disclosure standards possible without regard to the political fallout.
Van Hollen contends that the bill remains on track despite a few bumps in the road, although he acknowledged last week that it’s not an easy lift.
“This bill in one form or another would take on every special interest in Washington,” he said. “When you have a bill like this that shines more sunlight, you’ve got every special interest that likes to hide in the darkness come out to try and kill it.”
Van Hollen defended the deal reached with the NRA as an absolute necessity to get the votes for the measure. “I would challenge anybody to give me a scenario where you can get a bill through without some kind of adjustment,” he said.
And Van Hollen took note that the pro-reform groups are still backing the bill despite the controversial carve-out. “All of those groups have concluded that even with the adjustments in the bill, it would be a huge loss for the voters and the public if this bill is to fail,” he said. “If this bill fails, the special interests win. That’s clear.”
But internal Democratic tension reached a boil last week, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other large business groups ramped up their opposition. Highlighting the stakes, top chamber lobbyist Bruce Josten said his group is telling lawmakers that if the group’s opposition to “card check” unionizing legislation is a “10, to us, this is a 25.
Blue Dog Democrats revolted Thursday, prompting a late-afternoon huddle with Van Hollen and the rest of the leadership team. The Blue Dogs’ concern: Some of the most vulnerable in their ranks would be forced to cast a vote antagonizing business groups that they are hoping to neutralize in their re-election fights, only to see the measure die in the Senate.
Leadership sources acknowledge they can pass the package, even without the votes of most Blue Dogs.
But they face a more vexing problem conjuring majority support for it without the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, which also erupted last week in the wake of the NRA compromise.
Leaders cut that deal after realizing that objections from the gun lobby would sink the bill. They deemed as too broad a proposed fix from Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.) that exempted all 501(c)(4) groups — the section of the tax code under which the gun lobby is organized. In an attempt to narrow it, leaders crafted an exemption for any groups with more than 1 million members spread across all 50 states that have existed for 10 years and receive no more than 15 percent of their funding from corporate or union sources.
But no other group besides the NRA meets that standard, and other affected groups cried foul, refusing to relent after leaders announced Thursday their intention to lower the exemption’s membership threshold to 500,000. CBC members, many of whom hail from urban areas plagued by gun violence, balked at voting for a bill tailored to protect the gun lobby. With their “no” votes piled atop the Blue Dogs’, leaders knew they would come up short and scotched a planned Friday vote.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), a veteran campaign finance reformer who represents a district in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, said she is negotiating a possible new compromise with Van Hollen that would ax the membership requirement in the NRA exemption so that all nonprofit groups organized that way would receive the same treatment under the bill while still forcing disclosure from any that take more than 15 percent of their money from corporate or union sources. And she is trying to craft language that would also force disclosure from large individual donors.
“He’s open to looking at it, and I think that’s the important thing,” Edwards said of her work with Van Hollen. Pointing to her experience working with campaign finance advocates, she said, “The problem here is that we have both bad policy and ultimately bad politics when it looks like you have a base bill, the DISCLOSE Act, that deals with corporate special interests and creates a carve-out to protect a special interest.”
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a central figure in shaping the bill and the NRA language, said Edwards’ proposal would “fundamentally undermine the donor disclosure in the legislation” and create a “much bigger two-tiered system” for speech than the NRA carve-out did.
Wertheimer defended Van Hollen’s performance. “He is leading an effort to pass reform legislation that is effective, and he’s being challenged by interest groups in town who, bottom line, do not want to disclose their donors while they make campaign-related expenditures. That’s a non-viable position from a policy perspective,” Wertheimer said. “That is an anti-reform position, and if Rep. Van Hollen is challenging that and being attacked for being too much of a reformer, then it tells me we’re living in Alice in Wonderland’ in this city.”