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Tammy Baldwin online photo

Tammy Baldwin

A majority of the United States Senate has voted to advance a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress and the states to establish campaign fundraising and spending rules with an eye toward preventing billionaires and corporations from buying elections.

"Today was a historic day for campaign finance reform, with more than half of the Senate voting on a constitutional amendment to make it clear that the American people have the right to regulate campaign finance," declared Sen. Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who in June proposed his amendment to address some of the worst results of the Supreme Court's interventions in elections. The amendment would overturn the court's recent decisions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, as well as the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that it's going to take more than a majority to renew democracy.

Fifty-four senators, all Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats, voted Thursday for the amendment to clarify in the Constitution that Congress and the states have the authority to do what they did for a century before activist judges began intervening on behalf of wealthy donors and corporations: enact meaningful campaign finance rules and regulations.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin was proudly in the majority, having declared after the high court's McCutcheon ruling: "It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules, and now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field."

But just as the Democrats were united in their support of an amendment, the 42 Republican senators who voted on the proposal were united in their opposition. Their number included Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's steadiest foot soldiers.

The Republican opposition effectively blocked further consideration of the amendment, since 60 votes were needed to end debate and force a vote. Even if the GOP senators had not filibustered the initiative, actual passage of an amendment would have required a two-thirds vote.

"While the Senate vote was a victory for Republicans, it was a defeat for American democracy,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been one of the Senate's most ardent advocates for reform. “The Koch brothers and other billionaires should not be allowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars electing candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful."

Now, said Sanders, "the fight to overturn Citizens United must continue at the grass-roots level in every state in this country."

Sanders was right to reference the role of grass-roots movements.

Four years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court removed barriers to corporate spending to buy elections, serious reformers said a constitutional amendment would be necessary to reverse the court's Citizens United ruling. Most pundits and politicians, even those who recognized the threat posed to democracy by the opening of the floodgates for big money, dismissed a constitutional fix as too bold and too difficult to achieve.

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But the people embraced the constitutional route to reform. Grass-roots organizing succeeded in getting 16 states and close to 600 communities to formally demand that Congress act. (Madison and Dane County blazed the trail, thanks to the pioneering organizing work of the group Move to Amend.)

At the same time, campaign spending broke records in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections — and more records will be broken in the midterm elections of 2014.

That was enough to shake up even the most cautious Senate Democrats, who began moving earlier this year to advance the Udall amendment. Though grass-roots activists are right to argue for a stronger amendment, the Senate deliberations confirmed that there is broad support for a constitutional response to the money-in-politics mess — and that a substantial number of senators now see that a constitutional response is right and necessary.

People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker, who worked with activists from Public Citizen, Common Cause and other groups to collect 3.2 million signatures on petitions supporting an amendment, declared Thursday’s vote “a remarkable milestone for this movement and a platform for taking the fight to the next level. The debate in the Senate (is) a debate that Americans across the country who are passionate about fixing our broken democracy have wanted to see."

With the D.C. debate done, for now, the fight goes back to the grass roots. Activists with groups such as Move to Amend, Public Citizen's "Democracy Is for People" campaign and Free Speech for People will continue to organize and agitate, not just for an amendment but for an amendment that makes it absolutely clear that money is not speech, that corporations are not people, and that citizens have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.

"We have amended the U.S. Constitution before in our nation's history. Twenty-seven times before. Seven of those times to overturn egregious Supreme Court rulings. For the promise of American democracy, we can and we will do it again," declared John Bonifaz, the president of Free Speech for People, on Thursday. "The pressing question before the nation today is whether it is ‘we the people' or ‘we the corporations and big money interests.' This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is a deeply American issue. Whatever our political differences may be, we all share the common vision of government of, for, and by the people. Today's U.S. Senate vote is just the beginning. While this amendment bill did not receive this time the required two-thirds support in order to pass the Senate, we will be back again and again until we win. History is on our side.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times