Democrats Face Criticism From Customary Allies

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats face a revolt by their traditional allies, angered by the special treatment given to the National Rifle Association in legislation requiring tougher disclosure on political advertising by independent groups.
"Regardless of your position about the legislation in general, we think you will agree with us that this special carve-out is undemocratic and dangerous," Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, wrote Tuesday to the leaders of more than 100 member-organizations. She sought signatures on a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressing "profound disappointment and anger about the special treatment provided to those least in need of special treatment."

If anything, the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence was even more barbed about the concession given to the organization that arguably does more than any other to thwart his own group.

The special treatment for the NRA "is exactly why Americans are so turned off by politics and cynical about Congress," Paul Helmke said in a telephone interview. "It makes no sense at all when you say you're concerned about the role that money plays in politics."

The League of Conservation Voters also opposes the measure, according to a spokeswoman. Aron said the Sierra Club does as well, although officials for that organization could not be reached.

The developments left the fate of the legislation in doubt, according to Democratic aides who said the leadership likely would decide on Wednesday whether to go ahead with earlier plans to seek a vote by the end of the week.

The bill calls for new disclosure requirements to accompany campaign advertising by outside groups, which can now spend millions of dollars in often rough-and-tumble political activity without publicly identifying their donors. Democrats agreed Monday to exempt the NRA from its provisions after concluding the gun owners' group had enough allies in the House to bring down the measure.

The NRA issued a statement saying it would neither support nor oppose the measure as long as the exemption was a part of it -- effectively a statement of acquiescence in the bill's passage.

The measure requires the listing of the names of the top five donors to an organization running political ads, including unions, businesses and nonprofit organizations. It also requires that any individual or group paying for independent campaign activities report any expenditure of at least $10,000 made more than 20 days before an election. Expenditures greater than $1,000 would have to be disclosed within 24 hours in the final 20 days of a campaign.

In a concession negotiated over the weekend, House Democrats agreed to an exemption from the disclosure requirements for organizations that have been in existence for a decade, have at least 1 million dues-paying members and do not use any corporate or labor union money to finance their campaign-related expenditures.

In addition to the NRA, other organizations meeting the same criteria also would be exempt, but Democratic officials said Tuesday they were not immediately able to name any.

The legislation is a response to a Supreme Court ruling handed down last winter that said businesses and unions could spend their own money directly on attempts to sway presidential or congressional elections. The 5-4 ruling overturned decades of precedent, and Democrats in Congress quickly announced plans to seek legislation requiring greater disclosure of groups that pay for commercials and other campaign activities.