WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group formed by President Barack Obama's campaign team kicked off an effort to advance his legislative priorities on Wednesday amid criticism that it risks giving high-dollar donors undue influence over government policies.
Organizing for Action is an independent, nonprofit group that seeks to convert the grassroots energy that led to Obama's re-election in November into action in support of his policy goals such as gun control and an immigration overhaul.
Founders of the group, including donors who have contributed more than $50,000 as well as former campaign staffers and volunteers, opened a two-day organizing summit at Washington's St. Regis Hotel just a few blocks from the White House. Obama is to speak to the group on Wednesday night.
The group's founders, former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and former White House senior adviser David Plouffe, say Organizing for Action is not dedicated to electing political candidates but rather pushing Obama's second-term agenda.
That task could prompt some Democratic donors, weary after last year's long campaign, to hold back from contributing to the group, at least for a while, because elections drive most donor dollars and the next one is not until 2014.
"Organizing for Action is an issues advocacy group, not an electoral one," Messina said in an opening speech. "We will mobilize for the president's legislative agenda, but we won't do it on behalf of political candidates. That's because the president has always believed that the special interests have had undue influence over policy-making."
And yet Obama's policy-support group finds itself under renewed criticism that it will simply become a conduit for big-money contributors to get the ear of the president.
"It is operating as an arm of the presidency and it's funded by private money including large contributions and bundlers raising large amounts," said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform group.
"So this private funding arm tied to the president creates opportunities for donors to obtain corrupting influence over government policies and decisions," Wertheimer said. "This is an unacceptable entity. It's almost like outsourcing a portion of the presidency."
An editorial in USA Today on Wednesday had a similarly critical take on Organizing for Action, saying Obama has long said he would like to limit the influence of money on politics but his group "epitomizes just about everything he says he is against."
Those at the "founders summit" at the St. Regis Hotel did not see themselves as launching the sort of operation the criticism suggests.
"I don't think the president will sell access. He doesn't have to. He was re-elected by a great majority of the people," said Marsha Fishman of Dallas, a volunteer since Obama first ran for president in 2008.
She said the group will organize in neighborhoods across the country to support Obama's proposals by staging rallies, writing letters to the editor and the like.
Plouffe told the group that OFA is keeping together the "family" of grassroots leaders who helped organize the vote on behalf of Obama in last November's election.
"This is something that should be celebrated, not criticized," he said.
The group intends to serve as a counterweight to well-funded Republican groups like Karl Rove's American Crossroads, which poured millions of dollars into last year's presidential campaign. It is based in Chicago with an office in Washington.
Reporting By Steve Holland. Editing by Fred Barbash and Xavier Briand