Senate Republicans stuck together on Thursday and voted down a Democratic proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution in order to let Congress regulate political speech by corporations.
Democrats have been arguing for months now that two recent Supreme Court cases have allowed companies to inject millions of dollars into the campaign system, money they say dampens the ability of regular people to have a say in elections.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushed for a vote on legislation to amend the Constitution, but Republicans defeated it on Thursday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
But their answer is one that offended most Republicans — amending the Constitution to give Congress broad new powers to limit the money corporations can spend on politics-related speech. Several GOP senators have said the proposed amendment is an attack on the First Amendment rights of people — including those in companies — to speak freely.
"By limiting the amount of money individuals and corporations can spend on elections, this amendment would clearly limit their rights under the First Amendment," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) during Wednesday's debate on the measure.
"This amendment would allow us to decide what amount of money is speech and who can use it," he added. "This is a perilous amount of power to place in the hands of politicians."
Democrats defended the proposal as one aimed at setting "reasonable limits" on campaign-related expenditures. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who sponsored the amendment, said it would return the country to a time before courts equated the ability to spend money on politics as speech, and acknowledged that it would let Congress set limits on the former.
"It does not change in any way the longstanding First Amendment principle that the government cannot restrict speech based on the content of the message or the views expressed," he said. "The amendment would do no more than allow the government to regulate spending in election campaigns."
The Democratic proposal is a reaction to two recent Supreme Court cases, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, and McCutcheon vs. the FEC. Those cases said the government can't limit spending on politics-related communications, and can't put aggregate limits on individual contributions to political campaigns.
Republicans have criticized Democrats for the last several weeks for wasting time considering a highly controversial bill when it was known the bill would fail, and said it shows Democrats are out of touch with issues of real importance to people, such as jobs or securing the border. At the same time, Democrats have tried to argue that the issue is critical to everyday Americans whose voices get drowned out by corporate campaign money.
The Thursday vote was on whether to limit debate on the Democratic proposal, which would have allowed a vote. But 60 votes are needed at this stage, and the Senate voted 54-42 in favor of advancing the bill, leaving Democrats six votes shy of advancing it.
Republicans had a chance to kill the bill earlier in the week, but decided against doing so because they felt like they were winning the debate against Democrats.
"As written, the First Amendment does not permit regulation of the sort the majority wishes to impose," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) earlier this week. "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."