Senate Democrats are facing the prospect of Republicans voting to prolong debate on a campaign finance constitutional amendment, a move that could interfere with Democrats' plans for a barrage of pre-election votes on issues from student loans to the minimum wage to equal pay for women.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has already scheduled a Monday evening vote to cut off debate on taking up a proposal sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. to amend the constitution to effectively overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which threw out many limits on campaign spending on First Amendment grounds. Republicans vehemently oppose the amendment and it seemed, at least at the outset, that Democrats were planning for a quick defeat.
"Their goal is to shut down the voices of their critics at a moment when they fear the loss of their fragile Senate majority. And to achieve it, they're willing to devote roughly half of the remaining legislative days before November to this quixotic anti-speech gambit," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in Politico opinion piece posted late Sunday .
His complaint is more than a complaint — he has assigned an extended period of time beyond the few hours of debate that would happen if his party simply voted "No" on Monday. So reading between the lines, McConnell may be hinting the GOP will allow debate to continue and, therefore, use procedure to lock Democrats into a prolonged debate.
The Kentucky Republican has long been among the loudest voices against restrictions on campaign spending, taking an expansive view of the First Amendment. But it's telling that McConnell is indicating there could be a prolonged debate on the issue in the week ahead.
In a statement issued Sunday, Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and backs the amendment, called the Monday vote "a pivotal moment in American history." Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia sent an email to his campaign list tied to the vote, asking supporters to sign the petition to "overturn" the Citizens United decision.
Given McConnell's comments, the real test vote sounds like it will wait a few more days. Republicans could delay the matter enough that the next big vote probably wouldn't happen until Thursday at the earliest.
"The major issue of our time is whether the United States of America retains its democratic foundation or whether we devolve into an oligarchic form of society where a handful of billionaires are able to control our political process by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who represent their interests," Sanders said.
Democrats had discussed plans to hold a re-vote on a proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would allow for existing student loans to be refinanced at lower interest rates, but a prolonged debate on the First Amendment and political spending limits could very well shift the schedule.
And McConnell alludes in the opinion piece to the student loan bill and the broader Senate Democratic leadership "Fair Shot" agenda, which highlights campaign priorities of both current Senate Democrats and some of the challengers to Republican incumbents — perhaps most notably Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state running against McConnell.
"Earlier this year, the Democratic leadership rolled out a partisan playbook drafted by campaign staffers that spelled out just how they planned to run the Senate in the run-up to November," McConnell wrote. "It was filled with partisan proposals designed specifically to fail so Democrats could campaign on the failure of that legislation, blaming Republicans for what wasn't done."
Reid highlighted the "fair shot" agenda in a statement celebrating Labor Day, mentioning an assortment of stalled bread-and-butter issues including an extension of lapsed unemployment benefits and an increase in the federal minimum wage.
"When the Senate returns, Democrats will look again to help students and middle class families. I hope my Republican colleagues will join us in strengthening the economic security of middle class Americans as we continue to fight for a fair shot for all," Reid said.
That's to speak nothing of the must-pass business before departing for the election season: adoption of a continuing resolution to keep the government's doors open past the end of the month. The more time spent on campaign finance, the less time there might be for prolonged debates on other salient campaign issues. Or perhaps the Senate will work weekends between now and late September, as Reid has already threatened.
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