RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Once again, a push by Democrats to force outside campaign spending groups to reveal their big hidden donors has been stymied. Last night for the second time, Senate Republicans closed ranks and blocked legislation on what's known as the Disclose Act. And as it happens, that legislation would've affected groups that are a key source of spending this year, favoring Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. NPR's David Welna explains.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Not a single Republican voted in favor of letting the Disclose Act come up for debate. Just before senators cast their votes, Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a shot across the GOP's bow aimed directly at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
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SENATOR HARRY REID: We know the Republicans don't like disclosure. You can find that from the persons they are going to nominate for President of the United States.
WELNA: The Disclose Act blocked last night was actually a watered-down version of the one Republicans rejected two years ago. In a bid to pick up Republican support, this Disclose Act no longer banned campaign spending by foreign corporations and government contractors. It also dropped a requirement that major donors be listed in TV and radio ads.
And instead of requiring campaign spending groups to disclose the names of donors giving more than $600, that trigger amount was raised to $10,000. Barbara Mikulski is a Maryland Democrat.
SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI: What's wrong about saying who you are when you're giving more than $10,000 a year? The American public has a right to know.
WELNA: The groups being targeted by the legislation are not the so-called superPACs. They have to disclose their donors. They are instead groups known as 501(c)(4)'s, which claim to be what the IRS calls independent social welfare organizations. Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse is the lead sponsor of the Disclose Act. He labeled such groups shams and frauds.
SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Campaigns are no longer waged by candidates and parties fighting over ideas. They are now waged by shadowy political attack groups posing as social welfare organizations, run by the likes of Karl Rove and other political operatives, and fueled by millions of undisclosed dollars from secret special interests.
WELNA: Only two Republicans spoke on the Senate floor against the legislation. One of them was Utah's Orrin Hatch.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: The Senate is again taking up precious time, time that could be devoted toward creating jobs to address legislation that is instead designed to create votes for the president's flagging re-election efforts.
WELNA: And Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who not long ago had argued for full disclosure of campaign donors, now characterizes such disclosures as a restriction on free speech.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The purpose of this legislation is totally clear. After Citizens United Democrats realized they couldn't shut up their critics. So they decided to go after the microphone instead by trying to scare off the funders.
WELNA: McConnell added that Democrats are trying to create the impression of mischief where there is none, but there is evidence that undisclosed donors are a boon to Republicans this year. According to TV advertising data compiled by Kantar Media and The Washington Post, the so-called social welfare groups supporting Mitt Romney for president have spent more on campaign ads this year than have the official Romney campaign and superPACs combined.
By contrast, similar groups supporting President Obama account for barely 3 percent of what's been spent this year in his re-election effort. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.