October 12, 2010 in Nation/World

Democrats assail foreign money, politics

Some fear Obama strategy could backfire
Tom Hamburger Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON – In a potential sign of Democratic unease with the White House midterm political strategy, some of President Barack Obama’s allies have begun to question his sustained attack on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long claimed bipartisanship but is being increasingly identified as a GOP ally.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill worry that the White House is going too far in charging that the politically powerful business lobby may be using foreign money to fuel its election efforts this year. The charge ignites strong feelings among job-hungry voters. But Democrats are concerned that it may be overstated and could harm moderate Democrats in swing districts.

The charge was first leveled by a liberal-leaning think tank last week and since has been pressed by Obama and top White House aides. It stems from allegations that the same chamber fund that takes in dues and fees from overseas memberships is used to finance political activities.

The chamber is on track to spend $75 million in this election cycle, mostly to benefit Republican candidates. Officials of the organization, while refusing to provide internal accounting details, have said that no foreign money is used in its political activities.

The chamber also backs some Democratic candidates for congressional seats, and its local affiliates generally enjoy positive reputations across the country.

Democrats expressing reservations have worked on behalf of moderate candidates with business backing.

“The White House may reap the whirlwind,” said one top Democratic staffer. “What are we going to do next year if a Republican Congress is making baseless claims about President Obama? We’ll want the media to hold them accountable to the facts and the evidence.”

Other Democrats and Democratic groups applaud the tough White House stance, saying it is motivating solid Democratic voters and is a necessary response to extraordinary election-year spending by the chamber.

The White House has acknowledged that there is no specific evidence that foreign organizations have funded ads backed by the chamber.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the president is emphasizing disclosure so Americans can be sure who is funding the campaign. He added that the White House has not “suggested any illegality” in the chamber’s activities.

Independent campaign finance experts also were skeptical of the White House attack, but said full disclosure could deflect criticism.

“The chamber and all other … groups that have some revenues from abroad and do not disclose their funding sources for political ads are vulnerable to what may be weak or bogus charges,” said Thomas Mann, a campaign finance expert at the Brookings Institution. “But they have a way out – it’s called disclosure.”

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