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McConnell, Reid Spar Over Campaign Financing

McConnell, left, and Reid testify during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Examining a Constitutional Amendment to Restore Democracy to the American People," focusing on campaign finance. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate’s Majority Leader, Harry Reid, and its GOP leader, Mitch McConnell, delivered sharply clashing views of the campaign finance system Tuesday, at a Senate hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow Congress to restrict political money.  

“I am here because the flood of dark money into our nation’s political system poses the greatest threat to our democracy that I have witnessed during my tenure in public service,” Reid said during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The decisions by the Supreme Court have left the American people with a status quo in which one side’s billionaires are pitted against the other side’s billionaires.”  

McConnell, a staunch and longtime opponent of campaign finance restrictions, countered that the Senate resolution on the table is “embarrassingly bad.” Amending the Constitution as proposed would not only “allow the government to favor certain speakers over others, it would guarantee such preferential treatment,” McConnell told the panel. “It contains a provision, not found in prior proposals, which expressly provides that Congress cannot ‘abridge the freedom of the press.’ That’s really great if you’re a corporation that owns a newspaper. It is not so great for everyone else. The media wins and everyone else loses.” Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., called the hearing to consider a constitutional amendment proposed by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that would give Congress the power to restrict political money. The proposed amendment would also reverse a string of Supreme Court decisions to deregulate political money, including the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling which lifted limits on independent campaign spending, and the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling this year to eliminate aggregate per-election cycle limits on campaign contributions. It's the second in a series of political money-focused hearings organized by Senate Democrats in the wake of the McCutcheon ruling.  

The sharply divided views presented by Reid and McConnell set the stage for a lively hearing, which featured one demonstrator removed by police, and some fiery statements by senators on both sides of the aisle. Leahy noted that 2 million individuals have signed petitions calling for a constitutional amendment that would reverse Citizens United and other rulings, and that the petitions had been brought to the hearing in boxes “as a tangible reminder” that voters want Congress to act.  

“I have heard from countless Vermonters about how the Supreme Court’s decisions threaten the constitutional rights of hardworking Americans who want to have their voices heard, not drowned in a sea of corporate special interests and a flood of campaign ads on television,” Leahy said.  

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, recited a litany of the advocacy groups that he said the amendment would “muzzle,” from the Sierra Club to the National Rifle Association. He declared: “This amendment, if adopted, would give Congress the power to ban books and to ban movies.” Cruz also announced he introduced two bills Tuesday to protect individuals' First Amendment rights in the face of Democrats' efforts to regulate political spending.