WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans blocked legislation imposing new restrictions on political activity by special interest groups yesterday, likely dealing a fatal blow to a drive by the White House and congressional Democrats to rewrite campaign rules in the run-up to the midterm elections.
The 57-41 vote was three short of the total needed to advance the measure, which calls for greater disclosure on campaign advertising funded independently by corporations, unions and other organizations, but included an exemption for the National Rifle Association and a small number of other groups.
Less than 100 days before the elections, the debate was highly political - and the outcome widely anticipated.
Anticipating defeat, Democrats swiftly unleashed a coordinated attack employing one of their emerging campaign themes. "After a year of defending big banks, big insurance, big oil and other special interests, Republicans might want to drown out the voices of Americans who don't have the financial resources of big corporations but want to have their say in this year's elections," the party's chairman, Tim Kaine, said in a statement.
Republicans, anticipating big gains in the fall, folded the day's Senate events into their own election-year argument - that Democrats have been unsuccessful in easing double-digit unemployment.
"Today was a rebuke to congressional Democrats who need to put aside their electoral self-interest and start addressing our struggling economy, which continues to be the primary concern among American voters," GOP chairman Michael Steele said.
Democrats drafted the bill in response to a Supreme Court ruling last winter that said corporations and unions were free to spend their own money on advertising, mass mailings and other forms of political activity. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the bill's chief sponsor, said it was intended to crack down on shadowy campaign groups that spend heavily on attack ads.
But GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell said, "This bill is about protecting incumbent Democrats from criticism ahead of November."