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Campaign Finance Loophole Inserted in Spending Bill

Senate appropriators folded into a draft spending bill a provision long sought by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that would relax campaign finance coordination rules between candidates and the political parties.

This marks the second time in less than a year that lawmakers have sought major changes to campaign finance regulations through must-pass appropriations measures. But with work on spending bills stalled on both sides of the Capitol due to larger disagreements over sequestration, the potential for getting looser campaign regulations enacted into law this time is still unclear.

The provision would effectively consolidate power within the national parties including the Republican and Democratic committees raising money for House and Senate candidates. GOP appropriators tucked the provision into the $20.56 billion fiscal 2016 Financial Services spending bill the full committee is slated to mark up Thursday.

McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime foe of campaign finance restrictions, sought similar language last year as the clock wound down on negotiations over a wrap-up fiscal 2015 spending package (PL 113-235).

“Let me just sum it up: It would strengthen the parties, who have frankly not as much clout anymore, much of the firepower, it is now outside the parties,” McConnell told CQ Roll Call in December. “I don’t think there is anything good about weakening the parties.”

That provision was ultimately dropped. Leaders instead settled on language that dramatically increased the amount of money an individual could donate to the national party committees for special accounts to pay for conventions, buildings and recounts. The inclusion prompted fierce criticism from liberal Democrats, who nearly killed the underlying bill over their opposition to that provision, as well as a banking-related rider.

Democratic appropriators on Wednesday were quick to label the campaign finance provision as objectionable and said it would create a loophole that “effectively overrides” current spending limits for coordinated spending between campaigns and political parties.

The spending bill as written would “open the floodgates of money in our politics,” said Chris Coons of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee.

Democrats could offer an amendment to strip the provision in committee Thursday, but they likely don’t have enough votes to do so.

The provision’s inclusion is notable. House Republicans have introduced bills chipping away at campaign finance disclosure for years, which rarely made it through the Democrat-controlled Senate. But now that Republicans have the majority in both chambers, GOP lawmakers are taking a more aggressive stance and banking that they can extract some concessions from Democrats down the line.

The underlying Financial Services spending measure has virtually no chance of getting enacted into law in its current form, since Senate Democrats are vowing to filibuster every Republican appropriations bill written to the current sequester-level limits (PL 112-25). But should the politics allow for an omnibus agreement later in the year, the provision could prove to once again be a major sticking point in final negotiations.

Despite the criticism of individual Democrats, the parties themselves have long chafed at restrictions on how much they can spend in coordination with candidates, particularly with the proliferation of money from outside groups in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010.

Niels Lesniewski and Eliza Newlin Carney contributed to this report.

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