Faced with the prospect of losing a committee vote, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Richard J. Durbin Wednesday backed down a bit from their opposition to a Republican nominee to the Federal Election Commission accused of stymieing minority voting power.
Feinstein of California and Durbin of Illinois had expressed serious reservations over Republican Hans von Spakovsky’s nomination to a 6-year term on the FEC. And Feinstein, chairwoman of Senate Rules Committee, seemed to be setting the stage to vote against his nomination, signaling she would take the unusual step of seeking individual votes in her committee for von Spakovsky and three other pending FEC nominations – a Republican and two Democrats.
But Feinstein and Durbin on Wednesday joined a unanimous vote to move von Spakovsky’s nomination and those of the three others to the full Senate without recommendation.
Still, Feinstein said after the vote: “Individuals who go on this commission should be without bias and what this individual has shown to me is that he is biased.” But she explained to reporters that she simply didn’t have the votes to block his nomination because at least one Democratic committee member, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, informed her he intended to support von Spakovsky.
Though the math will be different when the nominations come before the full Senate, where a single Senator can effectively derail a nominee, the concerns about von Spakovsky will be the same.
For four years before he started a temporary appointment to the FEC in 2006, von Spakovsky was a top lawyer in the Justice Department’s voting section. In that capacity, he advocated policies that critics allege put partisanship over the Voting Rights Act he was charged with enforcing.
Von Spakovsky led efforts at the department to approve a congressional redistricting plan in Texas that the U.S. Supreme Court found discriminated against Latino voters and a law in his native Georgia requiring voters to show photo identification before casting their ballots. That discriminated against black voters, who were less likely to have such ID, according to career Justice Department attorneys, who were overruled by von Spakovsky and other higher-ranking DOJ officials.
That track record makes him an appealing target for Democrats, who – even after Alberto Gonzalez’s resignation as attorney general – continue to assail the Bush administration over allegations it politicized the work of the Justice Department.
A coalition of prominent civil rights groups including the NAACP, Human Rights Campaign and National Council of La Raza sent a letter to committee members urging von Spakovsky’s rejection.
The letter, from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, accused von Spakovsky of pushing “policies that systematically block access to the franchise for the poor and minority voters.”
Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey have gone on record opposing von Spakovsky’s nomination, and a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he “has grave concerns” about it as well.
The commission by statute consists of three appointees from each party, though it has one vacant Republican seat. Traditionally, nominees have been approved in pairs: one from each party, which has muted partisan concerns, and – critics say – predisposed the agency to ineffectiveness.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an outspoken opponent of some of the campaign finance rules the FEC enforces, defended the agency’s partisan split at Wednesday’s hearing.
It was structured that way “so that neither side would be tempted to try to take advantage of the other,” he said, vowing to block the two Democratic nominations if von Spakovsky’s is stalled.
“None of these nominees will move across the Senate unless they mve together,” he said.
The other three commissioners whose nominations are being considered – Democrats Robert Lenhard and Steven Walther and Republican David Mason – are much less controversial.
Lenhard, Walther and von Spakovsky have served on the commission as recess appointments since January, 2006, and Mason has been on the commission since 1998, though his previous term expired in 2003.
The recess appointments expire at the end of the year. If that happens, the commission would be left without a four-person vote necessary to approve measures unless President Bush made recess appointments.
The commission’s makeup is important because in the coming months, it could consider a number of issues with a potentially significant impact on the 2008 elections, including whether candidates can split the cost of ads with party committees and new rules for corporate- and union-funded ads.