A Democratic-led effort to impose new financial disclosure rules on political campaigns failed a key Senate vote today, despite support from the White House and congressional Democrats.
The so-called DISCLOSE Act, which was drafted in response to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in January, needed at least one Senate Republican's support to reach the 60 votes necessary to move forward. No Republicans supported the measure.
The bill would require some companies, unions and nonprofit groups to reveal their role in political broadcast ads or mass mailings in the months leading up to an election. Foreign companies and those that hold lucrative U.S. government contracts or that have benefited from federal bailouts would be banned from engaging in any independent political activity.
But the new guidelines would not apply to a select group of unions and organizations such as the NRA, AARP and Sierra Club, among others, which had sparked a fierce debate over the fairness of the measure.
A version passed the House June 24.
Republicans have vehemently opposed the new requirements, saying they would unreasonably restrict Americans' right to free speech and create an unlevel playing field through their series of loopholes and exemptions ahead of the November midterm elections.
"The DISCLOSE Act is not about reform," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "It's nothing more than Democrats sitting behind closed doors and choosing which groups should get to speak ahead of the 2010 midterm election. This is a bill to shield themselves from average Americans exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of speech."
But Democrats have insisted the measure would bring greater transparency to political campaigns and counter corporate influence in elections, which could increase after the Supreme Court overruled limits on their political spending.
"You don't want to give corporations the power to drown out the voice of the people," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said today on the Senate floor.
New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, referring to a provision in the bill that would limit spending by foreign companies, said, "I want Americans to decide American elections. We don't want some foreign company endorsing candidates that ultimately sponsor their views."
Moderate GOP Senators Balk at DISCLOSE Act
Supporters of the measure have defended the exemptions as undesirable but necessary to getting the bill passed and avoiding a fight with the powerful gun lobby.
Democrats and the White House have also tried to cast the vote in political terms to set the stage in what could be a campaign issue come November.
"In today's vote we're picking sides," said the bill's sponsor, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. " It's very clear who's defending the average American: those of us who support the DISCLOSE Act," which stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections.
President Obama threw his support behind the measure Monday, castigating Republicans for their opposition.
"You'd think that making these reforms would be a matter of common sense, particularly since they primarily involve just making sure that folks who are financing these ads are disclosed so that the American people can make up their own minds," Obama said. "Nobody is saying you can't run the ads, just make sure that people know who in fact is behind financing these ads."
Today's vote reflects the failure of Obama and Senate Democrats to win over moderate Republicans, who have supported campaign finance overhaul in the past.
"The bill would provide a clear and unfair advantage to unions, while either shutting other organizations out of the election process or subjecting them to onerous reporting requirements that would not apply to unions," a spokesman for Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins told ABC News, echoing a concern held by several moderates on the right.
The vote to bring the bill to the Senate floor for debate was 57 to 41 along party lines. It needed 60 to pass.
"We will go back at this bill again and again and again until we pass it," Schumer said.