Washington Digest: Senate GOP blocks effort to limit campaign spending

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans last week blocked an effort by Demo­crats to change the Constitution so Congress could limit how much outside groups can spend on political campaigns.

The measure was designed to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision that struck down limits on how much money corporations and labor unions can spend to elect or defeat candidates.

Democrats said the so-called independent expenditures harm democracy by giving wealthy interests too large a voice in federal elections — and ultimately too much influence over Congress.

“That is the issue,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who argued that without reform the nation is moving toward an oligarchy where Congress is beholden to “a handful of billionaire families.”

Republicans called the proposed constitutional amendment an assault on free speech.

“It’s hard to imagine what would be more radical than the Congress passing a constitutional amendment to overturn a dozen Supreme Court decisions that have protected individual rights. Free speech would be dramatically curtailed,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

The measure failed, 54-42, on a procedural vote requiring a 60-vote majority to move forward.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted in favor of the constitutional amendment. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., opposed it.

Taliban prisoner release

The House approved a resolution condemning Obama for failing to tell them in advance of plans to exchange five Taliban prisoners at the U.S. camp at Guantanamo Bay for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier captured in Afghanistan.

The resolution was approved 249-163 with 22 Democrats joining Republicans to vote for it. The measure comes after the Government Accountability Office issued a report in July saying the Obama administration had failed to provide Congress the 30-day notification required under law for transferring prisoners from Guantanamo.

“If Congress does not speak strongly now to condemn such blatant disregard for the law, any future administration may come to believe that obedience to statute is not required for the executive branch. This is intolerable,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.

In May, five senior Taliban were released from the prison in exchange for Bergdahl, who had disappeared from his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009. The Defense Department is investigating how he was captured by the Taliban.

Democrats who opposed the resolution complained that electioneering was driving the effort and that it could harm Obama’s effort to rally international and congressional support against Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq.

“It is simply an opportunity for a Republican Congress to take a shot at a Democratic president,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.

Reps. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., and Joe Heck, R-Nev., voted for the resolution. Reps. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., opposed it.

Social Security Advisory Board

President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Social Security Advisory Board won Senate confirmation over Republican objections that Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Henry J. Aaron is too partisan.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, spoke against Aaron’s confirmation to the independent board that advises Congress and the president on Social Security.

“Throughout much of his writings, Dr. Aaron has, far more often than not, opted for partisanship over sound policy. This not only makes me question his ability to be bipartisan, it also leads me to question his judgment on policy issues,” Hatch said.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., vouched for Aaron, saying he has decades of experience on Social Security and will provide independent advice.

“He is an individual who will work across party lines in order to deal with the short-term and long-term needs of Social Security,” Cardin said.

The Senate voted 54-43 to confirm Aaron. Reid supported the nominee. Heller opposed him.

EPA water rule

The House approved a bill to block implementation of an Environmental Protection Agency rule that would redefine which waterways are covered under the Clean Water Act.

Opponents of the new rule complained that EPA was expanding its regulatory authority over wetlands and streams beyond what Congress intended.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said the rule would require farmers and ranchers to get permission from EPA to operate on their own land.

“This would be an unprecedented land grab by our government through EPA,” he said. “I stand with our farmers and our ranchers when I say it is time to stop the EPA’s overreach and their re­definition of navigable waters.”

Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y., said the new rule is not what opponents claim.

“This is not a debate about the federal government trying to regulate someone’s backyard birdbath, but it is about ensuring that those waters and wetlands that provide hundreds of millions of Americans their drinking water … is protected,” Bishop said.

The House voted 262-152 to block implementation of the EPA rule. Amodei, Heck and Horsford voted to block the rule. Titus voted against blocking it.

Contact Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or at 202-783-1760.

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