Congressional Republicans are clearly united against funneling federal dollars to the community organizing group ACORN. But surprisingly, so are many Democrats.
In a legislative surprise Thursday, the House overwhelmingly voted to withhold all funding for ACORN. Later in the day, a Republican senator succeeded in targeting funds away from the group through yet another spending bill.
The House measure came as a parliamentary maneuver during debate on a higher education bill. Many expected the anti-ACORN effort would be ruled out of order because it didn't pertain to education. But in a stunning turn of events, House Education Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., not only accepted the ACORN provision, but also encouraged Democrats to vote for it.
As a result, 172 Democrats joined 173 Republicans to pass the motion 345-75. Two lawmakers voted present.
All nay votes came from Democrats.
Centrist Democrats rushed to applaud the Republican effort and had plenty of tough talk for the community organization. Second-term Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio, released a statement demanding that ACORN be held accountable.
"What ACORN has done is wrong, unacceptable, and unconscionable," wrote Space. "We are going to continue pursuing this until we get to the very bottom of it and uncover how this was allowed to happen."
House Republicans were eager to trumpet a legislative victory. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that "ACORN has violated serious federal laws, and today the House voted to ensure that taxpayer dollars would no longer be used to fund this corrupt organization." He called on the FBI to probe ACORN.
The Senate took a more incremental approach.
Earlier this week, the Senate voted 83-7 to support an amendment by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., to prohibit ACORN from receiving transportation and housing funds.
Johanns struck again Thursday. He introduced yet another amendment that would block funding connected to the Interior Department. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is the subcommittee chairwoman responsible for shepherding the bill to passage. She declared that ACORN is "in an absolute free-fall in terms of allegations of illegal activity."
Feinstein assured other senators that her staff "scrubbed the bill" and found no ACORN dollars. She pleaded with her colleagues to vote no. But Democrats flocked to the Johanns amendment as they did Monday, with only 11 voting against the Johanns measure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., even switched his vote to "yea" at the last minute.
ACORN is an organization traditionally supported by Democrats. Reid is expected to have a tough re-election race back home, fighting low poll numbers.
Interestingly, only two of the 11 Democratic senators who voted against the amendment are up for re-election in 2010. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand must compete for a full term after being appointed to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and unlikely to face any tough opposition.
Johanns argued that Interior spending legislation would indeed pay for ACORN. He said there are 193 mentions of the words "contracts, grants, non-profits and cooperative agreements." He elaborated that there are many avenues in which to potentially distribute money to ACORN.
"For example, ACORN subsidiaries openly publicize their advocacy for environmental cause," Johanns said. "ACORN groups are heavily involved in community redevelopment and so is the Department of Interior. The links are obvious. They're undeniable."
As a former secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush, Johanns pointedly acknowledged that once Congress approves funding for the various federal departments and agencies, the money is then spent however the institution sees fit.
"I will tell you, I have operated a federal department myself . A very, very large department where we administered millions and billions of dollars of grants and loans, etc. Once that appropriations bill is passed, you know what I know. Unless there is some real trouble, we are free at the departmental level to pretty much administer the money. So there just can't be a guarantee that they won't get money out of this program," Johanns said.
Feinstein tried to dispense with the ACORN issue early on, without a roll call vote.
"We're trying very hard to move our bill, and we will take your amendment, so that your amendment then, if there is any funding, it still can't be used, even without this amendment. So you are covered, senator," Feinstein said to Johanns.
But the Nebraska Republican wouldn't bend.
He instead offered a bill to permanently ban all federal funds from ACORN.
Sixteen senators cosponsored The Protect Taxpayers from ACORN Act. All are Republicans.
Though there's lots of Congressional support to defund ACORN, both of these approaches are still a long way from actually cutting off ACORN. Lawmakers will have to work out the conflicts in the bills later on in a conference committee.