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Washington Post - Senate Battle Over FEC Nominee May Hamper Agency's Ability to Act

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Washington Post - Senate Battle Over FEC Nominee May Hamper Agency's Ability to Act

By Matthew Mosk

With no resolution in sight to a partisan stalemate over one of President Bush's nominees to the Federal Election Commission , campaign finance experts said yesterday that there is a real prospect the commission could start the 2008 election year without enough members to take any official action.

"Right now, what we're watching is a game of chicken," said Bradley Smith, a former FEC chairman who has been monitoring a simmering Senate battle over Bush nominee Hans A. von Spakovsky. "If nobody blinks before the Senate recess, the commission will be immobilized."

The standoff over von Spakovsky's nomination has frozen action on four of Bush's FEC appointees -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- to the commission's six-member board. The votes of four members are needed to take any action. If the Senate does not confirm the nominees before adjourning in December, the FEC will be left with two members.

In the past few weeks, the dispute over von Spakovsky's nomination has grown more polarized.

Several key Democrats have objected to von Spakovsky's appointment because of his tenure in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Those critics contend that von Spakovsky advocated for a controversial Texas redistricting plan and fought to institute a requirement in Georgia that voters show photo identification before being permitted to cast a ballot.

"I am particularly concerned with his efforts to undermine voting rights," said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in a statement he released last month after placing a hold on von Spakovsky's nomination. In recent weeks, Obama has helped draw civil rights advocates into a lobbying effort to reject the nomination.

The effort has attracted the involvement of a number of groups that would not typically be engaged in a battle over an FEC nomination, including the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

"This is the first nomination that the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has ever opposed," said Wade Henderson, the group's president. He said he thinks that von Spakovsky would "use his role at the FEC to make it more difficult for voters to exercise their franchise."

Von Spakovsky's supporters said yesterday that his past actions have been mischaracterized. Testifying before the Senate Rules Committee in June, he disputed the way Democrats have described his Justice Department tenure and pointed out that during his tenure as a recess appointee on the FEC, his votes have largely been in line with those of the rest of the commission.

"I have pledged to the president, and I pledge to you, that I will work hard to ensure that this agency protects our election system," he told the committee.

Smith said he thinks advocacy groups that oppose von Spakovsky's philosophy on campaign finance matters have ginned up the civil rights issues to ignite the passions of senators who might otherwise not object to his appointment. "The result is that an otherwise routine FEC appointment has turned into a civil rights battle," he said.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday that they have made little progress in resolving the dispute.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said it has been a long-standing practice of the Senate to vote on FEC nominees from each party as a package.

"Historically, they've been done as a group to prevent one party's nominees from going through and not the other's," Stewart said. "That's the way we've always done them, and Senator McConnell sees no reason that should change."

Obama and three other senators who have formally objected to a Senate vote on von Spakovsky said they want each FEC nominee to be voted on separately. They said it should take 60 votes for him to be confirmed.

As for the fate of the FEC if the stalemate persists, those on both sides agreed that members of the commission's staff would be able to continue to conduct routine work, but little else would get done, at least until Bush made four new recess appointments. Such a move would mean he was conceding defeat on the von Spakovsky nomination.

"It will truly be the Wild West for a while," Smith said.

Neither Obama nor McConnell seemed to view that outcome as a reason to back down.

Asked about that prospect, Obama spokeswoman Amy Brundage said: "Senator Obama hopes President Bush listens to his serious concerns about von Spakovsky's record of undermining voting rights and finally sends Congress a nominee who will promote integrity in our election system."

Stewart, McConnell's spokesman, said that adjourning without a vote "would not be our preference, but if the people who are blocking this vote insist on that, and the majority leader doesn't schedule a vote, the end result would be we'd be down to two commissioners. That would be a bad result."

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