Congressional Republicans are targeting public financing of presidential campaigns, citing deficit worries and calling the current program “welfare for politicians.” Democrats, though, charge it’s an attempt by the GOP to further increase the influence of big donors.

Taxpayers can now choose whether to have part of their bill go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund -- $3 for individual income tax filers, $6 for joint returns.

Ending the program would take $617 million away from candidates over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan number-crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office. The money would instead go into general revenue of the federal government.

The CBO estimates that ending the program would immediately result in $195 million -- the amount left in the fund at the end of the 2008 election cycle -- going toward the ever-growing deficit.

The House voted Wednesday 239-160, with 10 Democrats supporting the measure, to nix the program, which was part of a slate of reforms enacted after the Watergate scandal.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promptly introduced a companion bill in the Senate for consideration, saying, “In a time of exploding deficits and record debt the last thing the American people want right now is to provide what amounts to welfare for politicians.”

Currently, once a candidate raises $100,000 in a primary through donations of $250 or less per donor, the candidate is eligible for matching funds, dollar for dollar. In the general election, a candidate receives a lump sum once she or he agrees to forgo private fundraising. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is also used to help fund the national GOP and Democratic nominating conventions held every four years.

The measure faces a difficult path in the Senate, if it even gets a vote. Democrats and their allies see the GOP effort as further erosion of campaign finance rules at a time when many in the party are concerned about a recent Supreme Court ruling that removed campaign spending restrictions on corporations and unions.  Democrats warned that the decision would allow “secret” money into the system, potentially from overseas.

“It is hard to imagine a more cynical vote than the one today by a group of Republicans to eliminate public funding of presidential campaigns. Today’s vote makes it clear that a majority of those in the House of Representatives wish to announce that they are for sale to the highest bidder,” accused Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union. 

Before the final vote in the House, Republicans defeated a Democratic attempt to mandate that groups paying for political ads disclose their donors, something Democrats have sought since the high court’s ruling.

Calling the fund “an outdated mechanism,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., noted, “In times when government has no choice but to do more with less, voting to end the Presidential Election Campaign Fund should be a no brainer.”