WASHINGTON - Democrats in Congress plan to unveil tough proposals this week to counter a Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts on elections.
President Barack Obama, who took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the ruling in his State of the Union address in January, has warned it will give corporations and special interest groups undue influence in elections.
The bill would require the leaders of corporations, unions and other groups to put their names on television ads and would ban election spending by government contractors, companies with more than 20 percent foreign ownership and recipients of taxpayer-funded bailout money.
"It is about restoring the proper balance. Certainly special interests have a right to be heard. The problem is when special interest voices drown out the voices of average Americans," a senior White House official told Reuters.
Democratic aides said they hoped to introduce the measure this week but acknowledged they face hurdles that could delay it becoming law until after congressional elections in November, when Republicans hope to shrink Democrats' majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The bill, if it is passed, is also likely to face legal challenges in the courts as opponents probe for loopholes to circumvent the spending restrictions. The country's biggest business group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, signaled on Friday it would fight it.
"No matter what text you choose, if you're clear enough there is always a way around it, and if you try to be spongy with it to make sure there is no way around it, then it is really not clear the court will uphold it," said Joseph Birkenstock, a registered lobbyist and partner at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington.
White House officials have been working closely with Democratic lawmakers since Obama's State of the Union address to craft legislation.
"The framework is a strong one. We are pleased to be working with the Hill to answer the president's call for prompt action," the White House official said, when asked whether Obama backed the bill due to be introduced this week.
The move is co-sponsored by Representatives Chris van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Mike Castle, a Republican.
REPUBLICAN SUPPORT EXPECTED
In the 2008 election cycle, nearly $6 billion was spent on all federal campaigns, including more than $1 billion from corporate political action committees, trade associations, executives and lobbyists.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling on January 21 said long-standing campaign finance limits violated the constitutional free-speech rights of corporations.
Despite Republican leaders having expressed support for the court's decision, the White House official said the administration was confident "there will be multiple Republicans who will embrace this" proposed legislation.
While Obama has made the legislation a top priority, it faces an uphill climb in Congress to become law.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer has sought to craft legislation similar to that of van Hollen and Castle but has had difficulty finding a Republican co-sponsor.
Without bipartisan support, such legislation would likely fail to clear a Senate Republican procedural roadblock to allow debate on the bill. Democrats control 59 votes in the 100-member Senate, but 60 are needed to move to debate.
With Congress busy on several fronts, including financial reform and a possible Supreme Court confirmation battle, the bill is not expected to get far this year.
The bill's language on foreign companies is already being challenged by groups such as the Organization for International Investment, a trade association that represents U.S. subsidiaries of companies headquartered abroad.
"It is a faulty premise to think of multinationals as being of any particular country or another," said Birkenstock, a lobbyist for OFII. "It's kind of pointless to pretend that 18 percent makes you American but that 22 percent makes you not American."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce slammed the bill as an attempt to "hijack the political playing field."
"We will fight any and all attempts to muzzle and or demonize independent voices from the election discussion," said chamber president and CEO Thomas Donohue.
The Center for Competitive Politics, a think tank that opposes campaign finance limitations, said it expected legal challenges to test any ban on government contractors and a proposed requirement that advocacy groups set up separate political broadcast accounts.
Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Xavier Briand.