WASHINGTON - Cynthia Bauerly, a Minneapolis attorney and Concordia College graduate, could be headed into controversy with her recent appointment to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The commission, which enforces federal election laws and monitors the finances of campaigns and political organizations, has become a partisan battleground in the past year, leaving it without a quorum going into this year's election season.

"What the country needs is an impartial campaign finance enforcement agency that can do its job without being obligated to members of Congress and party leaders that sent them there," said Fred Wertheimer, president and CEO of Democracy 21, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group that advocates limits on the role of money in politics.

Bauerly, 37, has political experience working for Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Charles Schumer of New York.

Klobuchar, who introduced Bauerly at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, called her "a fellow Minnesotan and a friend."

"She has shown a dedication to working on behalf of the American people for the advancement of our democracy," Klobuchar said.

"Independence, fairness, a deep yearning sense for justice for all are evident in Cindy," Schumer said when he introduced Bauerly.

"I believe the Federal Election Commission serves a central purpose to our democracy," Bauerly said during her testimony before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. "The integrity of the entire system rests upon the impartiality and the independence of the commission itself."

The committee approved Bauerly's nomination, along with two others, on Thursday. They now head to the floor for a vote from the full Senate.

For months, the six-member FEC has been operating with only two members, largely because of a dispute over one of President Bush's appointments. That nominee, Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department lawyer, dropped out of the process last Friday because of strong Democratic opposition in Congress.

With fewer than the minimum four members necessary to conduct major business, the FEC can still report election fundraising data but is unable to open investigations or approve new regulations.

Partisan standoff

FEC commissioners are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. By law, no more than three commissioners can come from either of the major parties.

Bauerly, a Democrat, was nominated at the beginning of May, along with Republicans Donald McGahan, an attorney, and Caroline Hunter, who works at the Election Assistance Commission.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has asked Bush to allow current Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, to remain on the board. So far, he has complied. Current Chairman John Mason is to be replaced by McGahan.

Thursday the White House announced the nomination of Matt Peterson, Republican chief counsel on the Rules Committee, to take the place of Von Spakovsky.

Some critics believe the focus on the commissioners' party identification reflects skewed priorities.

Wertheimer notes that the country has been without a functioning FEC for four months, largely because of partisan rivalry.

"The fact that people in Washington think about and talk about the agency in terms of Democrats and Republicans and in terms of making sure that both sides' interests are representative ... simply shows that the agency is being looked at in partisan terms and not in terms of an oversight and enforcement agency, which is its statutory role," Wertheimer said.

Chief among the business items awaiting the FEC once it has four members are approval of $85 million in public financing for Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential bid, finishing new rules that require campaigns to disclose the names of lobbyists that bundle donations and starting several investigations into campaign finance discrepancies.

Bauerly's background

Bauerly received a bachelor's degree from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and master's and law degrees from Indiana University. She served as counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, where she drafted legislation and advised on policy issues.

She worked for the Minneapolis-based law firm Fredrikson & Byron in the intellectual property litigation group and has also done campaign work for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

If confirmed to the FEC, her term would expire in 2011.

Conrad Wilson • 202-408-2723