The Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday began a long-shot bid at a constitutional amendment that would limit deep-pocketed political campaign donors' influence.
With plenty of politics but very limited prospects of actually changing the Constitution, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the free flow of "shady money" into politics the biggest threat to democracy he's seen. His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called efforts to limit campaign spending a tactic to rile up Democrats this election year.
Changing the Constitution is an intentionally difficult process, and leaders from both parties acknowledge that the panel's efforts to prohibit super PACs are likely to result in little more than election-year posturing.
"Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances," Reid told panel members while sitting next to McConnell in a rare joint appearance before a committee.
Reid, of Nevada, has used his post as the Senate's top lawmaker to aggressively criticize industrialist billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have funneled tens of millions from their personal fortune to a network of conservative organizations. Democrats have bristled at the Kochs' spending. In an apparent reference to corporate campaign spending, some audience members silently held protest signs reading: "Constitutional rights for humans only."
Even Tuesday, Reid continued to his campaign against the Kochs. "They have all these phantom organizations," Reid said. "They must have 15 different phony organizations that they use to pump money into the system."
McConnell said he had little patience for the political stagecraft taking place.
"Everyone on this panel knows this proposal will never pass Congress," McConnell said. "This is a political exercise to stir up one party's political base so they'll show up in November by complaining loudly about certain Americans exercising their free speech and associational rights."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, predicted the Democrats' amendment would allow critics to use the Constitution to ban books and films.
"Ray Bradbury would be astonished because we are seeing `Fahrenheit 451' Democrats today," Cruz said, invoking the novel about book burning.
Starting in 2010, the Supreme Court has whittled away at campaign finance laws, first paving the way for super PACs and later empowering the super-wealthy to open their checkbooks for a virtually unlimited number of federal candidates.
Senate Democrats are trying to reverse those decisions by changing the Constitution in a gambit unlikely to succeed. The proposal would allow Congress and states to set limits on how much money may be raised and spent in political campaigns.
But it is almost certain to fail. To change the Constitution, two-thirds of the Senate and the House would have to back the measure. Republicans, who generally oppose such a change, have 45 seats in the 100-member Senate. Democrats have 53 seats and two political independents caucus with them -- falling short of two-thirds.
The Republican-controlled House is unlikely to take up the measure.
The Constitution has been changed only 27 times, including the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.