With no Republican support, the Senate, voting 57 to 41 this afternoon, fell short of the required three-fifths majority to end debate on the DISCLOSE Act. The bill—which Democrats crafted as a response to the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United v. the Federal Election Committee case—would set new campaign finance laws for some corporations, unions, and interest groups. Democrats, who had been highly critical of the court's ruling, hope to pass the bill as a way to curb what they believe is an unlawful edge for corporations, including foreign entities, in political races. Critics have pointed to the exemptions for certain organizations, such as unions and the National Rifle Association, as a reason to question the Democrats' motivation for passing it during the midterm campaign season.
The bill, which would be enacted 30 days from its passage and potentially in time for general elections in November, would force organizations to disclose the source of funding for political ads. Today's vote, which was expected to fail due to lack of bipartisan support, should have little lasting effect, as Democrats say they are willing to bring the bill to a vote again soon. Since it will require support from at least one Republican senator, it is unknown whether the Democrats will have enough votes to pass the bill in the future. Nevertheless, the debate will likely emerge as a vehicle for both parties to push political talking points.
Democrats, led by the bill's sponsor, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, hope that the public will see the rejection of the bill as evidence of the Republican Party's support of corporate special interests. In his State of the Union address in February, the president first criticized the Supreme Court's ruling on Citizens United, which affirmed the right of private corporations to donate an unlimited amount of funds toward political campaigning. And just yesterday, President Obama urged the Senate to pass the DISCLOSE act, saying that "a vote to oppose these reforms is nothing less than a vote to allow corporate and special interest takeovers of our elections."
Schumer reiterated the president's request on the floor today, arguing that transparency is the main goal of this legislation and that voters are entitled to know who is behind the campaign efforts. "No one is saying they can't run ads. The constitution allows it," said Schumer. "All we're saying is that if you attack us, put your name on the ad." [See which industries give the most to Schumer.]
Republicans, including moderates like Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, say they oppose the bill for two main reasons: the expediency with which Democrats have pushed it through, and the exemptions made for large, long-standing, non-profit groups which would not fall under the bill's disclosure requirements, such as the NRA, the AARP, and the Humane Society. The exemption was included in the House in order to gain support from moderates and conservatives. Opponents believe that these exemptions would undermine the point of the bill and grant the exempted groups an advantage over other organizations and corporations, which they say is a violation of the First Amendment rights.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that the bill is not about transparency, as Democrats claim, but rather a political tool. "This bill is about protecting incumbent Democrats from criticism ahead of November," he said. He emphasized that the Democratic leadership brought the bill straight to the Senate floor "without hearings, without testimony, without studies, [and] without a [committee] markup." [See who gives the most to McConnell.]
McConnell also criticized the Democratic leadership's prioritization of this bill over the small business lending legislation also under consideration today. "Here we are in the middle of the worst recession in memory, and Democrat leaders decided to pull us off a bill that's meant to create jobs in an effort to pass this election-year ploy to hold onto their own," said McConnell.
Though he supports the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada, in line with Senate procedural rules, voted against the motion so that he will have the opportunity to bring the bill back to the floor in the future.