WASHINGTON — Although painting Republicans as pawns of Wall Street is a cornerstone of the Democratic strategy to overhaul financial regulation, financial interests have given campaign money generously to both political parties for years.
"No one party has any firm hold on righteousness here," said David Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks donations.
In the past two election cycles, when Democrats controlled Congress, the Democrats benefited most. So far in the 2010 cycle, the finance/insurance/real estate sector has given $65.2 million, or 56 percent of its contributions, to Democrats. Republicans have received $51.7 million.
People and political committees affiliated with securities and investment banking interests have been particularly kind to Democrats, giving them $21.7 million, or 63 percent of their donations so far.
Commercial banks, though, prefer Republicans; they've given GOP hopefuls $4.7 million so far, or 54 percent of their total.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, an independent research group, lobbyists with connections to the financial sector have hosted 10 fundraisers this year for members of the Senate Banking and Agriculture committees — six for Democrats and four for Republicans. The two panels wrote different parts of the financial overhaul bill.
None of that has stopped Democrats from insisting that they're the party of Main Street, not Wall Street.
"To those still willing to do what is right, to those still willing to help us slam the brakes on Wall Street's joyride, we're ready to work with you," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a news conference this week.
"If anything, some of us would like further consumer protections that go beyond what is in the bill," added Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Among members of Congress, Schumer so far this cycle has received $3 million from financial interests, more than twice as much as the runner-up, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Both are up for re-election and are considered heavy favorites. Reid, who has a difficult re-election, is third, at $1.26 million.
The three also top the list of recipients of money from the securities and investment banking industry — Schumer at $1.5 million, Gillibrand at $639,450 and Reid at $533,025. Gillibrand leads the list of commercial bank recipients, followed by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who's running for the Senate, and Schumer.
Schumer's office wouldn't respond to requests for comment.
Reid raised about $37,000 in January at a New York breakfast set up by Goldman Sachs, the investment firm recently sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which alleges civil fraud.
Though Reid reportedly was taken to task by executives at the breakfast for harshly criticizing Wall Street, he refused to provide details about the event.
Republicans gleefully point the finger back at Democrats.
"Democrats have had so many conversations with people in the industry about this legislation," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, visited hedge fund investors New York two weeks ago and raised money at KKR, a private equity firm.
The Republican senators said they wanted Wall Street executives to understand their positions better.
"Democrats have had no conversations with these people?" McConnell asked.
Levinthal and groups advocating changes to the campaign finance system contend that the flood of money into both parties amounts to "buying long term influence. They develop relationships and make sure their views are heard."
Nonsense, countered industry spokesmen.
"I refute it," said Scott Talbott, the chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the nation's largest finance companies, about charges that contributions buy access to lawmakers. "It's not that contributors want anything. You're supporting candidates who understand the industry."
"We give to candidates from both sides of the political aisle, and that's a matter of public record," said Peter Garuccio, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association.
The Senate is expected to begin consideration of the financial overhaul bill on Monday.
Several factors go into who gets money, including who needs it and who's on key committees. Securities and investment banking interests, for instance, gave more to Republicans in the 1996 to 2004 cycles, when the GOP controlled Congress.
In recent days, critics and journalists have been asking lawmakers to return certain funds, notably those from Goldman Sachs. Most lawmakers find the suggestion ridiculous.
"This is our system," Cornyn said. "I think the system needs more transparency, so people can more easily reach their own conclusions. But if you didn't have this system, the alternative would be to have taxpayers fund elections, and I'm not in favor of that."
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