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Republican Scott Brown (R-MA) narrowly wins a special election for the US Senate seat vacated by long-time Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, who passed away in August 2009. Brown defeats Democrat Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general. The victory is seen as a strong victory for the “tea party” movement, which backed Brown, a former Massachusetts state senator, even though he is considered something of a moderate Republican. Brown raised over a million dollars in less than 24 hours, in large part due to money from lobbying groups that back tea party organizations. Brown’s victory makes the Senate makeup 59 Democrats and 41 Republicans, enough to allow Senate Republicans to mount filibusters against Democratic proposals without fear of party-line “cloture votes” that would let Democrats pass legislation without Republican support. (American Conservative Daily 1/9/2010; Brooks 1/19/2010; The Week 4/15/2010) Brown went on Fox News a number of times in the days before the election to help raise his profile among conservative voters and donors alike. On January 11, Fox News analyst Dick Morris pleaded with Fox viewers to contribute money to the Brown campaign. (Media Matters 1/11/2010) Some observers speculated that Brown’s choice to pose nude for a magazine centerfold in 1982 might hurt him with conservative voters, but Newsweek columnist Katie Connolly wrote that because Brown is male, voters would not hold it against him as they would a female. (Connolly 9/15/2009) Newsweek will later compile a number of sometimes-contradictory explanations for why Coakley loses the race. One is that Coakley ran a poor campaign, an explanation advanced by a number of Democratic figures and liberal commentators. New York columnist Jason Zengerle will write of the singular “ineptitude” of Coakley and her campaign. Some liberal commentators will accuse Democrats of taking Coakley’s victory for granted, backing their explanation with, among other evidence, a memo from the Coakley campaign that noted “apathy” among national Democrats and a lack of money from national sources. Some conservatives will say that voters are alienated by the aggression of the Obama administration and other liberals, which energized conservatives. Some, including White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, will note the “infighting” among Democrats over Obama’s health care reform compromises, and say that such infighting weakened voter support for Democratic candidates. A few liberal commentators will say flatly that Democrats did not do enough to promote Coakley’s candidacy and energize the base. Lastly, a number of liberal commentators, along with Gibbs, will say that Brown rode a wave of anti-Democratic support into office. Blogger Chris Bowers will write that the current “political environment is terrible for Democrats, and they are going to lose seats in 2010.” (Graham 1/19/2010) Before the election, the Boston Herald noted that Brown had been “all but abandoned” by the Republican campaign committees, who apparently believed that he had little chance of winning and chose not to sink money into his campaign. (Chabot 12/29/2009)
Senate Democrats are unable to break a filibuster by Senate Republicans that is blocking passage of the DISCLOSE Act.
Act Would Mandate Disclosure of Donors - The DISCLOSE Act—formally the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act—would overturn many elements of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities (see January 21, 2010). If passed, it would have created new campaign finance disclosure requirements and made public the names of “super PAC” contributors (see March 26, 2010). Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and tax-exempt charitable organizations would, under the act, report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) each time they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures. Additionally, all outside groups, including “super PACs,” would have to report the names of donors. Moreover, the legislation would provide for so-called “Stand By Your Ad” requirements mandating that super PACs and other outside campaign groups producing political advertisements disclose the top funders in the ad. The CEO or highest-ranking official of an organization would, under the act, have to appear in the ad and officially “approve” the message. (Open Congress 6/29/2010; OMB Watch 7/24/2012)
Unbreakable Filibuster - Even public support from President Obama fails to sway enough Republican senators to vote against the filibuster, as did changes made to the bill by sponsor Charles Schumer (D-NY) designed to assuage some of Republicans’ concerns about the bill. The bill has already passed the House, shepherded through under Democratic leadership against Republican opposition. Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate also, but Senate rules allow the minority to mount filibusters that require 60 votes to overcome, and a number of Republicans would need to break from the Republican pack to vote down the filibuster. Additionally, some conservative senators such as Ben Nelson (D-NE) have not publicly stated their support for the bill. One Republican who had previously indicated she might vote for cloture (against the filibuster), Susan Collins (R-ME), dashed Democrats’ final hopes by saying she would not vote for cloture after all. “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,” says Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. “Senator Collins believes that it is ironic that a bill aimed at curtailing special interests in the election process provides so many carve-outs and exemptions that favor some grass-roots organizations over others. This, too, is simply unfair.” Other so-called Republican moderates such as Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) have previously indicated they would not vote for cloture. Ironically, one of the “carve-outs” in the bill Schumer added was on behalf of the far-right National Rifle Association (NRA), an addition that Schumer says was made to placate Republicans. Schumer says that even if the bill does not pass now, attempts to reintroduce it will be made. The DISCLOSE Act “is one of the most important for the future of our democracy, not just for the next six months but for the next six decades,” he says. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says: “I don’t know what the final vote will be tomorrow, but I know that you—if you had a sliver of Republicans that thought special-interest giving and corporate influence in elections was… part of the problem, then this bill would pass. Now we get to see who in the Senate thinks there’s too much corporate influence and too much special-interest money that dominate our elections and who doesn’t. I don’t know how it could be any clearer than that.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) retorts: “The DISCLOSE Act seeks to protect unpopular Democrat politicians by silencing their critics and exempting their campaign supporters from an all-out attack on the First Amendment (see January 21, 2010). In the process, the authors of the bill have decided to trade our constitutional rights away in a backroom deal that makes the Cornhusker Kickback look like a model of legislative transparency.” (Shiner 7/26/2010) The “Cornhusker Kickback” McConnell is referencing is a deal struck in late 2009 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to win Nelson’s support for the Democrats’ health care reform package, in which Nebraska, Nelson’s state, would receive 100 percent government financing for an expansion of Medicare. (Mascaro 12/20/2009)
Some Republican lawmakers begin issuing carefully worded criticisms of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh in the wake of Limbaugh’s crude personal attacks on law student Sandra Fluke (see February 29, 2012 and March 1, 2012). Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), fighting for re-election in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts, issues the strongest criticism of Limbaugh, saying on Twitter: “Rush Limbaugh’s comments are reprehensible. He should apologize.” A spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) tells CNN, “The speaker obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation.” House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who refused to allow Fluke to testify before his panel concerning government coverage of contraception (see March 1, 2012), calls Limbaugh’s comments a “distraction,” but uses the controversy to attack Democrats for “using” it for political gain, and claims his office’s female staffers have been exposed to insulting language from callers opposed to Republicans’ attempts to deny health care coverage on religious or moral grounds. He writes that he does not agree “with many comments that have been made during the effort to examine the constitutionality of Obamacare’s mandates on individual freedom, including the ones by Mr. Limbaugh, I find your narrow focus on this particular comment to be self-serving and dismissive of other inappropriate comments and attacks on Americans of faith.” (McMorris-Santoro 3/2/2012) Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum issue mild criticisms of Limbaugh (see March 2, 2012), and National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Carly Fiorina calls Limbaugh’s comments “insulting” and “a distraction from what are very real and important issues” (see March 2, 2012).
Senate Democrats try twice within a two-day period to bring the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance bill that would require the disclosure of the identities of political donors (see July 26-27, 2010), to the floor for a vote. If enacted, the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act would overturn many elements of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities (see January 21, 2010). If passed, it would create new campaign finance disclosure requirements and make public the names of “super PAC” contributors (see March 26, 2010). Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and tax-exempt charitable organizations would, under the act, report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) each time they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures. The bill would also “prohibit foreign influence in federal elections [and] prohibit government contractors from making expenditures with respect to such elections.” Both Senate Democratic efforts are thwarted by a Republican filibuster. Democrats are unable to muster the 60 votes needed to grant “cloture,” which would break the filibuster and bring the bill to the floor to be voted up or down. The last vote supports cloture 53-45, not enough to invoke cloture; the first vote was 51-44 in favor. Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a seizure, and Richard Shelby (R-AL) do not vote. Democrats force an official recording of each senator’s vote, placing the names of senators voting for and against the bill in the public record. Democrats have tried since 2010 to pass the bill (see July 26-27, 2010). The bill, sponsored in its latest iteration by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would force unions, nonprofits, and corporate interest groups that spend $10,000 or more during an election cycle to disclose donors who give $10,000 or more. Whitehouse modified the original version of the bill to no longer require sponsors of “electioneering” ads to put a disclaimer at the end, and pushed the effective date of the bill to 2013, meaning it would not impact the 2012 presidential campaign. Whitehouse and 15 other senators take to the floor to press for its passage. “When somebody is spending the kind of money that is being spent, a single donor making, for instance, a $4 million anonymous contribution, they’re not doing that out of the goodness of their heart,” he tells the Senate. Democrats urge Republicans who have previously spoken out in favor of transparency and campaign finance reform to vote for the bill, targeting Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Scott Brown (R-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), and Susan Collins (R-ME). However, none of them break ranks with their fellow Republicans. McCain, who co-authored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill of 2002 (see March 27, 2002) and has spoken out against the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and unions to anonymously spend unlimited amounts on “electioneering” activities (see January 21, 2010), refuses to join Democrats in supporting the bill. He tells the Senate before the final vote, “The American people will see it for what it is—political opportunism at its best, political demagoguery at its worst.” McCain asks Senate Democrats “to go back to the drawing board and bring back a bill that is truly fair, truly bipartisan, and requires true full disclosure for everyone.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says the bill would “send a signal to unions that Democrats are just as eager to do their legislative bidding as ever,” and that it “amounts to nothing more than member and donor harassment and intimidation.” In his weekly press conference shortly before the floor votes, McConnell says of the bill: “This could best be described as a selective disclosure act. It has managed to generate opposition from everybody from the ACLU to [the] NRA. That’s quite an accomplishment.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says of the bill: “[I]n a post-Citizens United world, the least we should do is require groups spending millions on political attack ads to disclose their largest donors. We owe it to voters to let them judge for themselves the attacks—and the motivations behind them.” And Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation says that the Senate is “thumbing their noses at the very notion of democratic elections.” (Parti 7/14/2012; OMB Watch 7/24/2012) After the bill fails to pass, Reid says, “It is obvious Republicans’ priority is to protect a handful of anonymous billionaires—billionaires willing to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to change the outcome of a close presidential contest.” (Strauss 7/24/2012)
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