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Inaugural VIPs pay high price for pomp

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 9:08 p.m.
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US President Barack Obama shirts are seen at Honest Abe's Souvenir shop in Washington on January 8, 2013. Preparations continue for Obama's inauguration for his second term on January 21. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKIBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Planners of President Obama's second inauguration are soliciting high-dollar contributions as pricey as an unprecedented $1 million to help pay for the celebration in exchange for special access.

The changes are part of a continuing erosion of Obama's pledge to keep donors and special interests at arm's length of his presidency.

He has abandoned the policy from his first inauguration to accept donations up to only $50,000 from individuals, announcing last month that he would take unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations.

A fundraising appeal obtained by The Associated Press shows the Presidential Inaugural Committee is going far beyond Obama's previous self-imposed limits and is looking to blow away modern American presidential inauguration fundraising records by offering donors four VIP packages named after the country's Founding Fathers.

Event organizers are hoping the packages will pay for expensive events surrounding Obama's inauguration on Jan. 21. Obama raised $53 million in private money for his first inauguration, when a record 1.8 million people packed the National Mall to see the nation's first black president take the oath of office. The celebration has been scaled down this year, with less than half the crowd expected and a cut from 10 inauguration night balls to two.

The pressure is high to pay for the festivities because donors contributed to the most expensive political race in history, a campaign that exceeded $2 billion.

So far, health care executives and major Democratic Party donors — including those who've taken private meetings with Obama or his senior staff — are among those paying for the party.

The shifts underscore Obama's evolving stance on changing how business is conducted in Washington. He criticized pay-for-access privileges during his first campaign, and after coming into office, he pledged to have the most transparent administration in history.

The president once shunned lobbyists but later gave some waivers to work for his administration. Once a vocal opponent of super political action committees — which can spend as much money as they can raise to help candidates — Obama later embraced them when faced with the mountain of cash spent by allies of his Republican campaign challengers.

The inaugural donation pitch for top contributors promotes a standard inaugural fundraising practice of offering packages that include tickets to balls and other events, albeit at much higher prices this time.

Donors at the “Washington” level are offered “premium partner access” for a minimum donation of $250,000 from individuals and $1 million from corporations. The package includes four tickets to the inaugural ball, an in-demand perk with just two being held this year on inauguration night. Inaugural planners offered $60 tickets for members of the general public, but they sold out quickly Sunday night. Tickets to the Commander In Chiefs Ball are free for invited members of the military and other guests.

Other perks of the Washington package include two bleacher seats to the parade, a VIP reception at a Candle Light Celebration on inauguration eve, tickets to a children's concert, co-chairs reception and a “Road Ahead” meeting featuring members of the president's finance team Saturday and tickets to a benefactors' reception to kick off the weekend.

The “Adams” package also promises premium partner access for $150,000 from individuals and $500,000 from corporations. It offers two tickets to the ball but not the parade bleacher seats and some other reception access.

Donors are offered “special partner access” that still includes ball tickets and the Candle Light Celebration at the National Building Museum for donations of $75,000 for individuals and $250,000 for corporations at the “Jefferson” level and $10,000 and $100,000 at the “Madison” level.

Presidential Inaugural Committee officials point out that many civic organizations accept corporate donations and that they do not allow sponsorship deals. The committee also says it vets donations and rejects those from companies that haven't paid back loans from the 2008 federal bailout of Wall Street.

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