- The Washington Times
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fearful their first push to counter a Supreme Court decision allowing business and union spending in political campaigns wouldn’t otherwise pass, Democrats might exempt the National Rifle Association from legislation requiring tougher disclosures of election ads.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the NRA exemption “cynical,” but a senior Democratic aide predicted the measure would fail without the NRA’s blessing.

“This proposal is so outside the spirit of what Congress says it is trying to do that any supporter of real reform should be embarrassed to vote for it,” Mr. Helmke said. “People are already cynical about the connections between big money and Congress. Now the big guys would get to avoid the rules once again.”

The bill calls for the top five donors of outside groups be identified when they advertise in a political campaign, as well as other disclosure requirements. Democrats negotiating a final version of the bill have proposed exempting organizations that have been in existence for at least a decade, have at least a million dues-paying members and don’t use corporate or labor union money to finance their campaign-related expenditures.

A handful of organizations may qualify for the exemption, including the AARP, said a spokeswoman with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, who sponsored the bill and said it’s needed to ensure the bill’s survival.

The overhall bill “is the public’s best defense against a takeover of our elections and democracy by powerful special interests,” said Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey. “But reform in Washington is never easy, and with so much at stake, doing nothing is not an option.”

But critics say that the “NRA exemption” was drafted principally to avoid pushback from the powerful guns-rights group, whose opposition could sway some Democratic votes from the “yeah” to “nay” column.

The move has caused an uproar from liberal groups and others typically allied with Democrats.

The Brady Campaign was one of more than 50 anti-gun-violence, conservation and other groups who jointly sent a letter Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to protest the exemption. The signers said they will oppose the legislation if it stays in the bill.

Groups that signed the letter included the Alliance for Justice, Sierra Club, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Resources Defense Council, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the United Church of Christ.

Democratic leaders also are hoping that the NRA exemption will entice support from conservative members from states with a large percentage of gun owners.

“As you put a piece of legislation forward, there are concerns from different members and others, and what you work toward is consensus, and that’s what we’re doing,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman with Mrs. Pelosi.

Mr. Elshami said negotiators are still hammering out details of the bill, which could hit the House floor as early as this week.

But a senior House Democratic aide said it was likely the exemption would remain in the bill’s final draft.

“I think taking it out, without a substitute that NRA could live with, would make it difficult to pass,” the aide said.

Another senior House Democratic aide said the provision was a compromise to a broader exemption that would have protected the NRA and several other nonprofit groups proposed by Rep. Heath Shuler, a conservative North Carolina Democrat.

The NRA, which initially opposed the bill, said this week it would neither support nor oppose the measure if the exemption was included.

The legislation is a response to a Supreme Court ruling 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.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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