The Republican Study Committee is laying the groundwork for a new informal partnership with the American Legislative Exchange Council, even as dozens of major corporations cut ties with the conservative nonprofit for its support of controversial voting and gun laws.
The RSC is working quietly with ALEC to host a gathering next Friday at the Heritage Foundation in hopes of establishing an ongoing relationship with the group that would allow federal lawmakers to exchange ideas with state legislators.
The conservative nonprofit has come under fire for promoting voter identification measures like those that have passed in at least eight states and are the subject of dozens of legal challenges in state and federal courts. ALEC has also promoted "Stand Your Ground" laws, which allow a person to use force in self-defense without an obligation to first attempt to flee. Those laws came under increased scrutiny after a neighborhood watch volunteer killed an unarmed teenager in Florida earlier this year.
More than 35 corporations, most recently General Electric Co. and Sprint Nextel Corp., have dropped their memberships with ALEC in the past year, and liberal groups, led by the African-American advocacy group Color of Change, continue to pressure other member companies such as Duke Energy and eBay Inc. to cut ties with the organization.
"It is really telling," said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change. "As major corporations disassociate themselves with this organization because it is so outside the mainstream, that Republicans are rushing to them."
Paul Teller, the executive director of the RSC, embraced the nonprofit and said the RSC has long supported the group's agenda.
"Frankly, this gathering is long overdue," he said in a statement. "As Washington encroaches more and more into state and local spheres, it's important that conservative legislators at the federal and state levels collaborate on policies to stop and roll back the ever-expanding federal government."
At least 18 state Representatives and six House lawmakers, including ALEC alum and RSC Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio), plan to attend, said Mike Franc, vice president for government studies at Heritage. The event is for lawmakers only, and ALEC's corporate members will not be in attendance.
Members of the RSC hope that next week's powwow will serve as a test run for future meetings and, potentially, an unofficial partnership that would allow its 169 members to build support for their polices at the local level, a senior GOP aide told Roll Call.
Recent legislative proposals on Capitol Hill have focused on rolling back federal involvement in states, such as efforts to replace Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program with block grants and to allow states to opt out of the federal highway and mass transit programs. Those positions are very much in line with ALEC's efforts to empower states.
While the members of ALEC, a combination of top officials at major firms and state lawmakers, and the RSC are intellectual bedfellows, this is the first gathering explicitly focused on policy ideas.
For ALEC, the collaboration seems to suggest a shift from nearly four decades of laser-like focus on advancing legislation in Republican-controlled statehouses.
Kaitlyn Buss, a spokeswoman for ALEC, said in an email that there is "no formal partnership with ALEC and any organizations."
"Obviously federalism is one of ALEC's foundational principles, and so facilitating a conversation about federalism is very much in line with our work," Buss added.
The embattled group is trying to fend off accusations that it is illegally lobbying state lawmakers, and broadening its efforts to the federal level could subject it to even greater public scrutiny.
ALEC is organized under tax code 501(c)(3) and is barred from political activity. It can lobby, as long as attempts to influence legislation do not constitute a "substantial part" of its activities. Although its stated mission is to bring corporations and lawmakers together to craft and promote legislation, the group insists it does not lobby.
That stance prompted formal complaints earlier this year from several government watchdog groups, including Common Cause. Marcus Owens, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale, the former head of the IRS' Exempt Organizations division, has asked the agency to revoke the tax-exempt status of the group.
"To the extent that ALEC officials themselves are at this event, they are having lobbying contacts," said Joe Birkenstock, who advises the firm's clients on Congressional ethics issues. "It seems to me that it's probably a slam-dunk."
House ethics rules prohibit lawmakers from jointly sponsoring meetings or other events with any private group, including nonprofits, and the RSC logo does not appear on an official invitation to the Members-only event, which is slated to start at 3 p.m. on Friday and run through dinner, according to the invitation.
Next week's event falls just before Members of Congress return to their districts for the final weeks of campaigning - "baby steps to start," the GOP aide said.