Democrats in Congress are abandoning an embattled community organizing group after Republicans stepped up attacks on the liberal-leaning ACORN and the federal funding it receives.
Majorities of Senate and House Democrats voted Thursday in favor of separate Republican proposals to block federal funding for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
The group has come under heavy criticism following the release Monday of a video showing ACORN employees apparently advising a couple, posing as a prostitute accompanied by her pimp, about how to conceal their line of work, evade taxes and handle undocumented, under-age sex workers.
In the Senate, 45 Democrats and Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., backed an amendment — offered by Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns — to bar any funds provided under the fiscal 2010 Interior Appropriations bill (HR 2996) to go to ACORN.
Even with Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the relevant appropriations panel, insisting that the spending bill provided no funds to the group, the Senate adopted the amendment, 85-11.
Hours earlier, the House voted, 345-75, to adopt a procedural motion by California Republican Darrell Issa adding language to a student-loan bill (HR 3221) requiring no federal funding be directed to ACORN. On the vote, 172 Democrats joined 173 Republicans backing the move.
Republicans, who have had the community organizing group in their sights long before the recent scandal, seized on the votes as a sign that public opinion was tilting against the group.
“Now that some of the abusive practices are finally coming to light, I think it’s galvanized public opinion, and it’s reflected in the votes of members of Congress,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Thursday for a thorough investigation of the group — yet another sign that Democrats who defended ACORN previously are now distancing themselves in the wake of the release of the hidden-camera video produced by a conservative activist and played repeatedly on cable networks and YouTube.
“A few people have embarrassed ACORN,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said, referring to the employees captured on the video. “We have to have our own investigation.”
Cornyn on Thursday sent a letter — signed by 27 other Republican senators — to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., requesting public hearings and a congressional investigation into ACORN’s activities. Reid voted Thursday in favor of the Johanns amendment after backing another he offered Sept. 14 to a separate spending bill.
Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, called the allegations against the group “serious” and noted they are being handled by law enforcement and the court system. “Surely, Sen. Cornyn believes that the investigations should proceed without interference to preserve the integrity of the process,” Manley said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio pressed for that chamber’s vote, saying earlier Thursday: “We need to stop giving money to this corrupt gang immediately.”
Boehner noted that Thursday’s successful vote that came on a procedural move — a motion to recommit — on the student loan bill could have been ruled out of order by the majority because it was not germane to the measure.
But, he said, the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., didn’t block the move because “they recognized if they tried to stop this on a point of order they’d lose.”
In both chambers, Republicans have introduced stand-alone bills (HR 3571, S 1687) that would end all federal funding to ACORN. An analysis conducted by Boehner’s office reported the group has received $53 million in federal funds since 1994.
The GOP-led drive to cut off ACORN’s federal funding also played out at the committee level.
Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rescind a nearly $1 million fire safety and prevention grant awarded to ACORN this month.
Last week, the Census Bureau ended an unpaid partnership with ACORN to publicize the decennial federal census, saying it no longer had “confidence” that the group’s local offices were being managed well.
Johanns, who introduced the separate Senate bill Thursday, said he will continue to offer—and insist on — recorded votes on amendments blocking ACORN funding to each of the fiscal 2010 appropriations bill the Senate considers.
“This is an organization that keeps digging, only they keep digging themselves in a bigger hole,” Johanns said. “The problem that ACORN has is just a cumulative effect. It’s caught up with them...I think finally, to the credit of the Senate, senators just walked in and said ‘enough is enough.’ ”
Earlier this week, even more Democrats joined Republicans in support a Johanns amendment, barring any funding for ACORN in the fiscal 2010 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill (HR 3288). In the Sept. 14 vote, 49 Democrats and Lieberman sided with 33 Republicans to approve the amendment.
One Democrat who had opposed anti-ACORN amendments in the past — Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold — said the recent revelations changed his mind.
“I felt it was time to send something of a message that there’s concern,” Feingold said. “It was specifically not about politics. It was about bad policy.”
Some defenders remain
Not all Democrats joined the legislative activity directed against ACORN.
“It may be that ACORN is guilty of various infractions, and if so they should be investigated,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Thursday. “Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial. That’s what this amendment did, and it is flatly prohibited by the Constitution.”
Many of ACORN’s Democratic defenders hail from urban states and districts. Illinois Sen. Roland W. Burris, for example, described the Republicans’ amendments as a “political ploy, a plot, to destroy ACORN.”
“You have to get rid of the bad apples, but you can’t destroy the whole organization,” said Burris, adding that “ACORN does a good job. They work with poor people, they deal with issues that are beneficial to the community. They help senior citizens.”
Among the 11 Democrats opposing the Johanns’ amendment Thursday was New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand , who has been working to shore up a shaky relationship with more liberal factions of the Democratic Party in her state in advance of her election next year.
Another was Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Judiciary Committee chairman. Leahy said while he was “repulsed” by the allegations against ACORN, cutting off funding to the group was not the appropriate response.
“I’ve always been consistent — as chairman of two different appropriations subcommittees — that if you have something that [involves] competitive grants, then we shouldn’t pick and choose here,” Leahy said. “If we start that process, there’s going to be a whole lot of others.”
Leahy said if the allegations against ACORN employees prove to be true, the employees involved could be prosecuted.
In an e-mail Thursday, Bertha Lewis, the chief executive officer of ACORN, said the organization is conducting an investigation of the incidents and denounced the behavior of the ACORN employees captured on the video.
But she defended the group’s work and charged that staunch conservatives are trying to sink the organization.
Not always running for cover
This week’s votes show Democratic support for ACORN eroding, something not seen after the group was accused of voter fraud for its role in a large-scale voter registration drive during the 2008 presidential election.
On Feb. 6, for example, the Senate rejected, 45-51, a proposal from David Vitter, R-La., to prohibit money in the economic stimulus bill (PL 111-15) from going to ACORN. Forty-nine Democrats, Lieberman and Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., opposed the move, close to the reverse of this week’s votes.
On March 29, the Senate tabled, 53-43, another Vitter amendment to prohibit ACORN and any organization sharing premises or resources with it from receiving money authorized under national service legislation (PL 111-13). Fifty-one Democrats and the two independents voted to kill the Vitter move.
Vitter and Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., also held up the nomination of Robert M. Groves as Census Bureau director in the spring in part because of the Republicans’ concern that Groves would not commit to barring ACORN from helping to recruit census-takers.
Until recently, it was Vitter—not Johanns—who took the lead in pressing the case against ACORN in the Senate. Next year, Vitter faces a tough re-election bid after he was embroiled in sex scandal when his phone number was found in records of a Washington, D.C., escort service that was accused of engaging in prostitution.
Greg Vadala, Edward Epstein and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.