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Democrats launch outside spending group; conservatives charge hypocrisy

White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton
Former White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton CBS

Updated 12:36 p.m. Eastern Time

A group of Democrats aligned with the Obama administration today announced that they are starting an outside spending group similar to the conservative groups that President Obama has decried.

The new group has two arms: Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. While one of the Priorities groups will disclose its donors, the other will not. The model is similar to that used by American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the conservative outside groups that raised more than $70 million in the midterm election cycle to spend on behalf of candidates with a "conservative, free-market legislative agenda."

The new Democrat-aligned Priorities groups were launched by Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, two former White House aides, with former Clinton political strategist Paul Begala serving as an adviser. Politico reports that prominent liberals Ellen Malcolm (founder of Emily's List), Democratic fundraiser Jay Dunn, former Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, Democratic donor Rob McKay and other prominent Obama allies have already signed on; the group is reportedly seeking to raise $100 million to help Mr. Obama win reelection.

In an email, Burton described Priorities USA as standing for "policies that are fiscally responsible and reflect America's core value of fairness." After speculating that conservative groups will spend $500 million in the 2012 election cycle, he and Sweeney cast their group as an attempt to level the playing field.

"Americans deserve an honest debate about job creation, the economy, national security and education," said Sweeney. "That debate will never happen if only right wing extremists are engaged on the battlefield."

Democrats have railed against outside groups that do not disclose their donors, with President Obama complaining last yearthat the anonymous donors "could be the oil industry. It could be the insurance industry. It could even be foreign-owned corporations." The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, complained that "Bush cronies" were "spending millions from secret donors to elect Republicans to do their bidding in Congress."

"This is a threat to our democracy," Mr. Obama said last October. "The American people deserve to know who's trying to sway their elections."

American Crossroads Communications Director Jonathan Collegio responded to the announcement of the Priorities groups by suggesting that "Obama's brazen hypocrisy, in encouraging his own operatives to start groups exactly like the ones he demagogued last year, shows how cynical this President can be when it comes to perpetuating his own power." Crossroads is seeking to raise $120 million in the 2012 election cycle.

Burton suggested Democrats had no choice but to start the groups.

"While we agree that fundamental campaign finance reforms are needed, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars," he said. "We will follow the rules as the Supreme Court has laid them out, but the days of the double standard are over."

While the Obama reelection campaign will not accept donations from lobbyists and interest groups, the Priorities groups will accept such contributions.

The explosion in outside groups resulted from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that allowed for corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited money on political campaigns, though not by giving directly to candidates or party committees.

While Mr. Obama effectively shut off the flow of outside money in the 2008 campaign by making it clear he did not want outside groups backing him, he appears to have given at least tacit approval to the Priorities groups.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday that "We don't control outside groups."

"These are not people working for the administration," he said, adding: "The president's position on disclosure remains the same."

Former Senator Russ Feingold, who cosponsored the McCain/Feingold campaign finance reform law, sharply criticized Democrats for creating the group, saying, "Democrats who mirror the right-wing tactics of Karl Rove and David Koch do our nation no favors. Our democracy is best served by rejecting the fundamentally corrupt strategy of embracing unlimited corporate influence."

But Public Campaign Action Fund defended the creation of the Priorities groups, saying in part, "In order to change the rules of the game, we need to engage in the rules as they are, not as we wish they were. To act otherwise after Citizens United is to take a knife to a gunfight."

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