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Senate kills measure to limit tribal political donations

An amendment that would have placed limits on tribal political donations was easily defeated on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

The Senate voted 56-40 to table an amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana). He tried to attach it to a broader ethics and lobbying reform package that is on the top of the Democratic agenda.

"Think about the single biggest scandal that got us to this debate, the Jack Abramoff scandal," Vitter said. "Indian tribes and their unfettered access to money, including gambling revenues, was at the center of the single biggest scandal that brought us to this debate."

But Democrats, led by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), objected to the proposal. They said Vitter wrongly placed the blame for the Abramoff scandal on tribes.

"We must ensure that the tribes, who were the victims of illegal acts, are not penalized in the name of reform," said Inouye, who served as vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at the start of its Abramoff investigation.

The committee also held a separate hearing to address tribal political donations. Officials from the Federal Elections Commission explained that tribes are subject to certain limits and aren't treated differently from similar types of donors.

"Indian tribes are treated in the same way as a number of other types of organizations, such as partnerships or certain limited liability companies," the FEC said in a special advisory issued during the height of the scandal.

Vitter's amendment would have severely limited the ability of tribes to participate in the political process, said Joe Garcia, the president of the National Congress of American Indians. "We were the last group of people in our country to be given the right to vote and we are deeply offended by these ongoing attempts to silence our political voice," he said.

Members of the Senate heard the message, though the vote was split along party lines. Seven Republicans, including Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), the new vice chairman of the Indian committee, and one independent joined Democrats in tabling the amendment.

Only one Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, voted no on the motion to table. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the former chairman of the Indian committee, also voted no.

Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, tribes can contribute up to $2,100 per election to federal candidates, $5,000 per year to political action committees, $10,000 per year to the federal account of state parties and $26,700 to national parties. But a tribe cannot make these contributions if it is classified as a corporation or a federal contractor, the same prohibition that applies to non_Indian corporations and contractors.

The law also establishes a $101,400 limit on contributions that "individuals" can make in a two-year period. Tribes, as sovereign governments, are not considered "individuals" so they are not subject to this restriction -- and neither are certain entities such as political committees.

The amendment would have overturned these rules and placed tribes in a different category than similar donors. It would have forced tribes to form political action committees whether they wanted to or not.

"Indian tribes should not be singled out because of misunderstandings about how the federal laws apply to them," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the new chairman of Indian committee. "Nor should the sovereignty of Indian tribes or their ability to represent their tribal members be infringed upon."

The Senate continues to debate S.1, the ethics and lobbying reform package. In one of its first actions under Democratic control, the House adopted internal changes aimed at tackling corruption and eliminating scandal.

Senate Roll Call:
Motion to Table Vitter Amdt. No. 5 (January 10, 2007)

Reform Bill:

Hans von Spakovsky Statement:
Tribal Political Contributions (February 8, 2006)

FEC Advisory:
Indian Tribes (February 2, 2006)

Federal Elections Commission Opinions:
Advisory Opinion 1999-32 (January 28, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2000-05 (May 15, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2005-01 (March 14, 2005)

More Advisory Opinion 2005-01 Documents:
Advisory Opinion Draft A and Draft B | Tribe's Request for Advisory Opinion

Relevant Links:
Federal Election Commission -
PoliticalMoneyLine -
Center for Responsive Politics -