WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats started their campaign-season drive Monday for a constitutional amendment aimed at curbing special interests' financial clout in elections, a doomed effort the party hopes will help them make a populist appeal to voters.
The measure would allow Congress and the states to limit the money raised and spent in election campaigns by outside groups, candidates and others, curbs that the Supreme Court has weakened in recent years. It has no chance of winning the two-thirds majority needed to clear the Senate, let alone even being considered by the Republican-run House.
Democrats brought the measure to the Senate floor anyway, eight weeks from elections in which they are fighting to retain their majority in the chamber.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Democrats around the country have spent months lambasting special interest campaign spending as being undemocratic, with a special focus on the billionaire Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch are industrialists who have contributed large sums to conservative groups that are spending millions against Democratic senators, and the party's candidates have invoked their names in fundraising appeals.
"Should a family hard hit by the recession take a back seat in our government to a couple of billionaires?" Reid said Monday as the Senate returned from its summer recess.
Republicans say limiting campaign spending by outside groups would violate free speech — a rationale Supreme Court justices have used in decisions diluting decades-old restrictions. They say Democrats are trying to rack up political points and say people are more concerned with issues like the economy and health care.
No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said that while back in his home state during Congress' break, "Not a single time did my constituents say, 'We want you to go back to Washington, D.C., and vote to gut the First Amendment right to free speech.'"
On Monday, senators voted 79-18 to keep debating the measure. That vote reflected a desire by some Republicans to spend time on the proposal before defeating it — which would reduce the time Democrats have for pre-election debates on other issues that their voters like.
Outside groups have spent $189 million on congressional campaigns since January 2013, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors political spending. That's more than triple the $57 million spent to this point in the 2010 campaign — which, like this year, featured only congressional races and not a presidential contest.
The proposed amendment by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would let lawmakers roll back the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which found that limiting campaign spending by outside groups would violate their free speech.
The legislation would also let Congress address two other cases that have eroded campaign finance strictures: The 2010 Citizens United case, which allowed unfettered independent spending by corporations and unions, and last April's McCutcheon ruling letting wealthy individuals contribute to as many candidates as they'd like.
The proposed amendment includes a provision taking special aim at corporations, saying Congress could bar them "and other artificial entities created by law" from spending money on elections.
Leaders hope this month's session will be short so lawmakers can go home to campaign. Both chambers' leaders plan to use much of the session to appeal to each party's most loyal voters.
Besides the constitutional amendment on campaign spending, Reid is preparing for possible votes on the federal minimum wage, women's pay, student loans and contraception coverage for some workers. Republicans have previously blocked those measures.
House Republicans envision votes on boosting energy production and easing regulations and taxes on businesses — bills the House has passed but the Senate has ignored.