WASHINGTON -- Eager to cut spending, the Republican-controlled House voted to end multimillion-dollar federal subsidies for presidential candidates and national political conventions on Wednesday, the first of what party leaders promised will be weekly bills to attack record deficits.
The 239-160 vote sent the measure, and the fate of the familiar $3 check-off box on income tax returns, to the Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats.
"Eliminating this program would save taxpayers $617 million over 10 years, and would require candidates and political parties to rely on private contributions rather than tax dollars," said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
"In times when government has no choice but to do more with less, voting to end the Presidential Election Campaign Fund should be a no-brainer."
Democratic critics said it was anything but that, arguing that the vote represented a step away from sweeping reforms enacted in response to the Watergate scandals of a generation ago.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said that in combination with a year-old Supreme Court ruling that loosened restrictions on donations by corporations and others, the legislation would result in "less transparency and less information for the voters" at a time when the public is seeking "clean, transparent and competitive elections and campaigns."
Republicans said less than 10 percent of taxpayers choose to contribute a few dollars of their income taxes to the presidential campaign fund, and they noted repeatedly that President Barack Obama became the first candidate in history to decline federal funding for the general election in 2008.
The Republicans brought the bill to the floor as the first fruit of their Internet "You Cut" program, launched during the election campaign last year to encourage the public to identify programs for pruning or eliminating.
By coincidence, the vote occurred a few hours after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the federal deficit would climb to almost $1.5 trillion for the current fiscal year, a record.
The claimed 10-year savings of $617 million pales by comparison, but Republicans said they are just gearing up their attack on spending.
Under the law, presidential candidates qualify for matching funds from the government once they have met certain requirements during the primary elections. In accepting the subsidies, the White House hopefuls also must agree to certain restrictions.
Presidential nominees are eligible for funds after the party political conventions as long as they do no fundraising on their own during the general election campaign.
The system was put into place as part of reforms that followed the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, illegal activities sanctioned by President Richard Nixon's re-election committee and funded by unregulated donations slushing through his campaign treasury.