The Senate on Monday evening advanced a controversial Democratic bill to amend the Constitution so Congress would have the authority to regulate political speech by corporations and other groups, an idea most Republicans are calling a dangerous plan to weaken the First Amendment.
The bill was able to move ahead only with the help of several GOP senators, but Senate aides said Republicans only did this to keep alive a debate they believe they are winning. With the Monday night vote, the GOP will get to argue for a few more days that Democrats are looking to undermine the cherished free-speech Amendment, and then move to kill the bill.
GOP aides also said allowing the doomed bill to advance for now will stop Democrats from calling up other ideas, and effectively force Democrats to use up the week on one bill that's going nowhere.
Democrats called up their language in a procedural vote to officially start debating the bill, and needed a handful of Republicans to get there. More than 20 Republicans obliged, and the Democratic language advanced in a 79-18 vote.
But the next vote to end debate on the bill, likely to take place Thursday, is expected to be blocked by Republicans.
Democrats have spent weeks talking about the need to amend the Constitution because of two Supreme Court rulings. One of these, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, said the government has no right to limit spending on politics-related communications.
The other, McCutcheon vs. FEC, said the government can't set aggregate limits on the amount of money that people contribute to various campaigns.
Democrats say these rulings have led to a flood of unregulated money that needs to be stopped, lest corporations use their access to millions of dollars unfairly blast ads that favor them across the country. In floor debate Monday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said it's unfair that one of his Senate colleagues has been subjected to hundreds of negative ads in her district.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made the seemingly contradictory argument that the Democratic effort to put limits on political speech is needed to protect the right to free speech.
"Their constitutional amendment is about restoring freedom of speech for everyone in America, whether you're a billionaire, a millionaire, upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class, poor, homeless," Reid said of the Democratic proposal.
But Republicans roundly rejected the idea as a detestable attempt to change the First Amendment in an effort to secure political gains in elections. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the point of the First Amendment is to protect all speech, and not to allow exceptions for speech that politicians oppose.
"These efforts should not only be not supported, they should be repudiated, firmly, loudly and unapologetically," he said.
"As written, the First Amendment does not permit regulation of the sort the majority wishes to impose," added Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). "So they have decided to re-write it. This is incredible… and a sad demonstration of the lengths to which this majority is willing to go in its quest to retain power."