WASHINGTON – An eclectic coalition led by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pressed its case in D.C.'s District Court Wednesday, arguing that a campaign finance bill signed into law this spring violates the Constitution.
Attorneys representing the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Republican National Commitee and the California Democratic Party, among others, said the campaign finance reform law violates guarantees that states can conduct their own elections as they see fit, violates the right of an individual to freely associate with political groups and limits the right to free political speech by limiting campaign contributions.
"It's like the Christmas sales. Fifty percent of all buying in the country is in the week before Christmas. Well, probably 30 or 40 percent of all political talk is around election time, and it's a bad time to shut people up," said First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.
The campaign finance reform law went into effect on Nov. 6, one day after the midterm election. It limits the amount of unregulated dollars that contributors can give to the national parties for non-candidate-specific election activities and prohibits television advertising by interest groups in the final days before primary and general elections.
Defenders of the law, including the Federal Elections Commission and its sponsors Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., argue that the entire legislative process is horribly distorted by corporate and union money — the so-called unlimited "soft money" contributions which go to the respective political parties.
"Certain bills don't come to the floor of the House because certain financial interests don't want those bills to come to the floor of the House," Shays said.
The courtroom battle, the first in what is expected to be an expedited fight all the way to the Supreme Court, suggested it will be an interesting clash. The attorney representing McCain and Feingold revealed the existence of a memo from the group that lobbies on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, PhRMA.
The 1999 internal memo was written in advance of the group's meeting with McConnell, who was serving on the committee that overseas the Food and Drug Administration, which approves the use of new drugs. At the time, McConnell was also the Senate GOP's chief fund-raiser.
The memo suggested that PhRMA representatives make two points to McConnell — one involving pharmaceutical costs and the other noting the industry was a solid supporter of Republicans and recently gave $200,000 to GOP committees.
"It's a memorandum about how to go have a conversation with Sen. McConnell, and the short of it is, 'Tell him what we want and tell him how much we gave him,'" suggested attorney Roger Witten.
Attorneys for the FEC also referred back to Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and White House coffees during the Clinton administration as examples of the corrupting influence of money on politics.
Donors "give the money because they feel it is a necessary calling card to get into the door in Congress," said Richard Bader, a lawyer representing the FEC. "We think that's enough to uphold the contribution limits."
Republicans are trying to make the point that the bill, which President Bush was reluctant to sign, creates a "dragnet of regulation" that puts restrictions on states' abilities to conduct their own elections.
"The only reasonable conclusion to be reached is that Congress does indeed in this law regulate state elections," said McConnell attorney Kenneth Starr, who served as the special prosecutor who investigated President Clinton on an array of issues, including the White House coffee klatsches. "It intrudes into state and local parties' ability to be active."
The Republican National Committee will have to lay off as much as 40 percent of its staff by the end of the year because of the new restrictions, said Bobby Burchfield, an RNC lawyer, who argued that would put the party in danger of being unable to coordinate election activities with state and local parties.
Even on the day the bill was passed last spring, Feingold said that he wasn't sure the bill would pass a court challenge.
The federal court was hearing the arguments for two days and is expected to make its ruling early next year.
The finding is just stop number one as the legislation hurls through the judiciary on its way to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that limits on campaign contributions can be imposed even though restricting political spending violates free-speech rights. Courts have cited that decision in numerous campaign finance cases.
Fox News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.