June 15, 2012 – 11:15 p.m.

Constitutional Amendment on Campaign Finance May Get Vote

Some senior Senate Democrats are working to reopen the debate on campaign finance rules by pressing for a vote on a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress and the states more authority to regulate federal and state campaign spending and contributions.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said his committee may vote on the proposed amendment (S J Res 29), sponsored by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, after a hearing next month to be conducted by Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, chairman of the panel’s Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee.

Durbin said he hopes the hearing will build support for the resolution, which resembles proposals that attracted support from several Senate Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, in the 1990s and as recently as 2001.

Supporters argue that a constitutional amendment is needed to clarify the authority of Congress and the states to regulate campaign finance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2009 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which ended restrictions on direct independent campaign expenditures by groups and companies. The impact of that ruling is being felt in this year’s campaigns, as super PACs, particularly those on the conservative side of the political spectrum, raise huge amounts of money to buy advertising.

“Citizens United has pushed us to a point where we have no alternative,” Durbin said.

Some Judiciary Committee Republicans — among them Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — have vowed to oppose the Udall proposal.

And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in a June 15 address to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, attacked the proposed amendment as an attempt to limit free speech. “Amending the First Amendment for the first time in history would be the ultimate act of radicalism,” he said.

But McCain left open the possibility that he will support sending a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification, citing concern about the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on the 2002 campaign finance overhaul (PL 107-55) he helped write. “I would have to look at how they want to do it and how much it might infringe on other First Amendment rights that people have. This is a very delicate business,” McCain said.

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the ranking Republican on Durbin’s subcommittee, said he is undecided. “I don’t know if I want to go down that road yet,” Graham said.

But McCain, Graham and many other Republicans are united in opposition to another Democrat-sponsored measure (S 2219), which would require corporations, labor, super PACs and other organizations to disclose more information about political donations. Critics say the disclosure provisions for labor unions are weak.

Udall brushed aside claims that his proposed amendment opening the door to new campaign finance restrictions would infringe on free-speech rights, saying it would merely let Congress, rather than the Supreme Court, set campaign finance ground rules.

He said his constitutional amendment is meant to reframe the debate to woo support from McCain and other Republicans. The Senate defeated a similar proposal in 2001. Among the four Republicans voting yes were McCain and Cochran.

Like it or not, Democrats will have to live with the Citizens United ruling this year and probably in future campaign cycles, unless the court changes its mind. Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress and the approval of at least 38 states.