Democrats seek more disclosure in campaign donations from corporations

* The push to advance a long-stalled bill is a direct response to the Supreme Court ruling allowing political spending by unions and corporations.

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

As independent groups pour money into midterm election campaigns, Senate Democrats are trying again to advance a long-stalled bill that would require corporations to more fully disclose their political donations.

A vote planned for Thursday comes after Democrats failed to overcome a GOP filibuster in July, when not a single Republican agreed to advance the so-called Disclose Act. The House passed a similar bill in June.

The effort is a direct response to a Supreme Court ruling in January that struck down century-old prohibitions against political spending by unions and corporations. President Obama criticized the court's ruling during his State of the Union address in January.

The proposed statute would not reinstate prohibitions, but would require disclosure by donors. It also would require corporate chief executives and others to personally approve TV ads, much the way candidates are required to do.

"The thought of corporate and special interest money cascading into our system is no longer just a premonition, it's reality," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "If you're afraid to disclose, maybe you've got something to hide."

Since the Supreme Court ruling, spending has exploded.

"What we know is more money than ever is flooding into the election. We don't know where it's coming from," said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen.

So far, conservative groups established since the court ruling have far outspent those linked to Democrats and the left, political experts allied with both parties acknowledge.

However, Public Citizen reported this month that Republican-oriented groups have been less likely to disclose their donors than Democratic ones.

Donor disclosure began to drop off in 2008, the group said, when the Federal Election Commission loosened reporting requirements. But disclosure plummeted this year, with less than a third of independent groups reporting their donors.

"The new dearth of disclosures is the result of groups pushing the envelope," the group said. It also said the Federal Election Commission is not enforcing reporting requirements.

Republicans, though, have shown little interest in advancing the legislation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has long resisted campaign finance restrictions.

Some Democrats cooled to the bill after the House included an exemption for the National Rifle Assn. Nonetheless, no Senate Democrat voted against the bill in July.

To attract Republican support, Democratic leaders have offered to delay the bill's enactment until January 2011, after the November election. With Democrats controlling 59 seats, they would need at least one Republican to reach the 60-vote threshold required to advance the bill Thursday.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), once considered a potential crossover vote, indicated Wednesday that he would probably again vote no.

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