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By Kate Ackley, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Progressive and political money groups say they will intensify their lobbying in the coming days to prevent four campaign finance measures from hitching a ride on a year-end spending deal.

With a deadline to reach agreement on government-wide funding less than two weeks away, the effort will be no easy pitch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., authored one of the measures, which would relax limits on coordination between political parties and candidates.

“They’re swimming upstream every step of the way,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University professor who specializes in campaign and election issues. “Legislators are going to be hard-pressed to vote against an appropriation bill that’s otherwise appealing to them on the basis of some of these riders.”

Opponents of the measures argue they would decrease transparency and would make it easier for “soft money” to flow to the political parties. McConnell and other backers of rolling back limits on party-candidate coordination say it would help political parties compete in the campaign funding scene increasingly dominated by super PACs that can raise unlimited funds.

McConnell’s measure was added to the fiscal 2016 Financial Services Appropriations bill, while the three other items were included in the House’s version.

The provisions in the House bill would prevent the White House from requiring campaign finance disclosures by government contractors and put the brakes on a Securities and Exchange Commission effort to require public corporations to disclose their campaign finance activities. Finally, a third provision would make sure the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t issue new regulations aimed at defining political activity for nonprofit groups.

“Republicans do not want a shutdown, so there’s space to push to keep a lot of these things off,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said the panel wouldn’t comment or speculate on funding levels “or policy provisions that may or may not be included in future legislation.” Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said he didn’t have guidance on his boss’ campaign finance rider.

Public Citizen also is working through a broader coalition to keep all riders — not just those dealing with campaign finance — off the funding package, Gilbert said.

When it comes to the campaign finance issues, she said, her coalition is looking to the White House and congressional Democrats to “be strong.” But the groups are uncertain of their chance for success.

“This is McConnell’s favorite issue,” she said. “There is the fear that things that are quote-unquote considered small will slip through.”

Public Citizen and several other groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21 and the League of Women Voters, pressed their case in a letter to lawmakers.

“Secret money in our elections provides widespread opportunities for government corruption and prevents holding public officials and influence-buying donors accountable for corrupt practices,” the letter said.

“Our organizations strongly urge you to oppose the four damaging campaign finance riders contained in pending appropriations bills and to oppose any new rider that may be offered that would weaken or undermine the campaign finance laws,” the letter added.

The organizations are especially wary since last year’s budget deal included a rider boosting the contribution limits to political parties.

Rick Hasen, a political law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said the latest McConnell provision could revive much of the “soft money” that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul sought to rein in.

“Political parties have been hobbled by super PACs,” Hasen said. But the McConnell rider would “raise the specter of people getting their influence and access through political parties.”

Hasen said Democrats are unlikely to block the riders or get help from President Barack Obama, who has warned Republicans about “ideological” fights over policy issues in omnibus legislation.

“Democrats talk the talk of wanting strong campaign finance laws, but many Democratic lawyers are working behind the scenes to loosen them,” Hasen said. “I wouldn’t count on Obama to use his power to block those measures.”

But Senate Democrats may push back harder than anticipated.

“Democrats have said we are against all poison pill riders including these ones and we mean it,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. “They need our votes and we have said no poison pill riders.”

©2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) adjusts his glasses while taking questions on the upcoming budget battle  on Capitol Hill in Washington September 29, 2015.   REUTERS/Gary Cameron


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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

Targeting Battleground States

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Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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