The secret negotiations that led to one of the most significant expansions of campaign contributions in recent years began with what Republican leaders regarded as an urgent problem: How would they pay for their presidential nominating convention in Cleveland in two years?
The talks ended with a bipartisan agreement between Senate Democrats, led by the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and House Republicans, led by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, that would allow wealthy donors to begin giving more than $1 million every election cycle to each party’s national committees.
The agreement drew intense criticism from both liberal Democrats and Tea Party-aligned Republicans when details of the new limits began circulating last week. It is now headed for likely passage as a rider in a $1.1 trillion spending bill loaded with provisions sought by banks, food industry lobbyists and other special interests. It continued to draw fierce attacks as lawmakers prepared to vote on a final spending bill, even as Democratic leaders privately defended the addition as a necessary compromise to forestall more aggressive efforts by Republicans next year to whittle away at other campaign funding restrictions.
“The Reid-Boehner provision to increase by tenfold the limits on contributions to political parties is excessive and also does not belong on this bill,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
It was Mr. Boehner’s team that first approached Mr. Reid’s negotiators with a proposal, according to Republicans and Democrats with knowledge of the discussions.
After successfully pushing legislation in March to abolish public financing for party conventions, some Republicans had become worried about how they would pay for their 2016 convention, scheduled to be held in Cleveland, in Mr. Boehner’s home state, Ohio. Some feared that the party would have to scale back the convention, losing clout and prestige to the big-money outside groups that are playing bigger roles in campaigns.
House Republicans first proposed allowing unlimited contributions to the committees that pay for activities inside the convention hall, including checks from corporations, which have been prohibited from making direct contributions to federal candidates and parties for more than a century. (Businesses and unions can already give to each convention city’s host committees, which are separate, nonprofit organizations that raise money to pay for parties and other amenities outside the actual conventions.) Democrats suggested resurrecting the taxpayer subsidy, a move the Republicans opposed.
“Our overriding concern is that taxpayer money not be used,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner.
Democrats countered with a proposal to allow the Republican and Democratic national committees to establish new convention accounts, capped at $20 million, that could accept larger contributions than currently permitted the parties — but only from individuals. The current provision would allow individuals to write checks for those accounts of up to $97,200 a year, or three times the size of the maximum contribution regularly permitted for the committees.
They also had another concern: real estate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is currently millions of dollars in debt, not only from the hard-fought midterm campaign, but also from the cost of a $5.2 million mortgage taken out to buy additional office space last spring.
In what appears to be an effort to help alleviate such costs, Democrats demanded that the added provision also allow all party committees, including the House and Senate campaign committees, to solicit additional large contributions to cover the costs of buying, renting or renovating real estate. The Democrats’ campaign committee was not consulted about the request, a spokesman said, nor was its leadership.
“The D.S.C.C. was not involved,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the committee.
Democrats also asked for a third provision that would allow triple the normal amount for contributions, earmarked for legal costs. Republican efforts to place new restrictions on voting in many states, two Democrats said, had helped power a surge in election litigation. The additional provision would allow donors to write a third check, again at triple the normal limit, to “to defray expenses incurred with respect to the preparation for and the conduct of election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings,” according to the bill.
In effect, the new rules whittle away at the restrictions on so-called soft money in the 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation, which prohibited parties from raising large contributions under the guise of funding “party-building” and get-out-the-vote efforts.
All in all, the new accounts would vastly expand the amount that wealthy donors could give to party committees. Under current rules, the most one individual could donate to party committees in a given year totals about $97,200. Should the new budget agreement be signed by President Obama, that amount would skyrocket to $776,600, or $1.56 million over a two-year election cycle.
In a letter to Mr. Obama on Friday, advocates of stricter campaign limits said the proposed changes amounted to “the most corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted” and urged him to veto the bill. “In a ‘bipartisan’ unholy alliance, Senator Reid and Senator McConnell joined with House Speaker John Boehner to secretly insert into the Omnibus bill the destructive campaign finance provisions, which were unknown to the public and members of Congress until the day the bill was filed in the House,” the letter stated.
Democrats and Republicans alike said on Friday that even if the new rules bolstered the influence of large donors, they would also improve disclosure and accountability by pushing more donor dollars into party committees, rather than into “super PACs” and other less-regulated outside groups.
Ben Ginsburg, a prominent Republican election lawyer, said the additional money would be a lifeline.
“It will allow the national parties to have more funds to be able to help their candidates and state parties,” said Mr. Ginsburg, “in an era where candidate voices and state party voter mobilization efforts are being drowned out and usurped by outside groups.”
Ashley Parker and Robert Pear contributed reporting from Washington.
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