WASHINGTON — Members of the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday sent to their colleagues a long-shot proposed change to the Constitution that would rein in political spending.
Democrats who lead the Judiciary Committee moved forward with an effort to limit deep-pocketed political campaign donors' influence. Republicans called the proposal a political stunt aimed at rallying Democrats during this election year and a ploy to gin up populist outrage against wealthy donors who tend to side with conservatives.
"How can I compete if someone is to put in $1 billion?" asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Republicans on the panel criticized the proposal as overly broad and punitive against conservatives.
"The plain text of this amendment would allow Congress to ban books, to ban movies and to silence the NAACP," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "This is the Senate Judiciary Committee, a learned body. The majority of this committee is lawyers."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Cruz that the NAACP supports the amendment.
Other Republicans expressed disbelief that they were even considering changing the Constitution, an intentionally difficult process that has been accomplished just 27 times, including the first 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the Senate had become an "increasingly surreal and hysteric place."
"Thank goodness the framers of the Constitution, Article 5, made really, really dumb ideas like this almost impossible to enact," Cornyn said. "Why are we wasting our time on this?"
Starting in 2010, the Supreme Court has whittled away at campaign finance laws, first paving the way for super PACs and later empowering the super-wealthy to open their checkbooks for a virtually unlimited number of federal candidates.
Industrialist billionaires Charles and David Koch have taken advantage of the changes and have funneled tens of millions from their personal fortune to a network of conservative organizations that has grown in size and influence since those rulings. Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have been relentless in criticizing the Kochs.
It's proved to be an effective fundraising message for Democrats, as well. As Judiciary Committee members were considering the amendment, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire was invoking the Kochs in a fundraising message for her re-election bid.
"Give as much as you can, right now, to help us fight the Kochs on TV - before it's too late," wrote the Shaheen campaign.
Republicans counter by pointing to Democrats' support from investors George Soros and Tom Steyer, who have bankrolled left-leaning outside groups.
All political patrons would see their role limited regardless of ideology, said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
"We want to ban the billionaires on both sides of the aisle," Schumer said. "The Soroses and the Steyers will be just as banned as the Kochs and the others."
Senate Democrats, however, were likely to fail in their effort to allow Congress and states to set limits on how much money may be raised and spent in political campaigns.
To change the Constitution, two-thirds of the Senate and the House would have to back the measure. Republicans, who generally oppose such a change, have 45 seats in the 100-member Senate. Democrats have 53 seats and two political independents caucus with them — falling short of two-thirds.
The Republican-controlled House is unlikely to take up the measure. Even if they did, officials in 38 states would still have to ratify the proposed amendment.
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