WASHINGTON – Regulators began mapping out the new world of political fund raising on Wednesday, approving some election activities that can still be paid for by large donations from companies and unions after a general ban on "soft money" takes effect.
A few blocks away, President Bush was taking advantage of the old laws to raise a record $28 million for GOP congressional hopefuls.
With one Democratic member joining three Republicans, the Federal Election Commission defined some of the state and local election activities that will be exempt from the new law banning soft money donations at the federal level.
By a 4-2 vote, the commission gave state and local parties more time to use soft money to help candidates who face primary challenges.
The commission concluded that election activities regulated by federal law begin only after a candidate makes it onto a primary or special election ballot.
In even-numbered election years, candidates facing no primary challenge would be covered by the law's restrictions beginning Jan. 1. Others could wait until as late as August, when their primary ballot is settled.
Also by a 4-2 vote, the commission defined several types of election activities that will be considered get-out-the-vote efforts, for which state and local parties can spend some soft money.
An advocate of tough campaign finance restrictions decried the early decisions.
"So far they have taken a series of steps to narrow the coverage of the statute. That's troubling and it's not clear how far it is going to go," said Common Cause lawyer Don Simon.
The Democratic Party's chief lawyer declared himself pleased so far. "There's a long way to go on this, but so far the discussion, the amendments have been constructive," said Joseph Sandler.
A Republican commissioner insisted the FEC would not try to gut the new law.
"The hysteria this has generated is just amusing," said Bradley Smith. "I think it's probably a good thing the American people don't pay much attention to it."
The decisions were made the same day Bush helped raise a record take as headliner for a gala for GOP congressional candidates.
The source of some of that money -- drug companies which are lobbying the administration and Congress on how prescription drug coverage should be provided to seniors -- came under attack.
"The Republicans are doing all that they can to ensure that the drug companies get what they pay for," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said.
Wednesday night's gala for the National Republican Congressional Committee and its Senate counterpart lifted this year's fund-raising total for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to at least $97.9 million. Bush is certain to take it over $100 million at a Florida GOP dinner Friday with his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
The biggest contributors Wednesday night got more than dinner.
The donors to Senate candidates who contributed $5,000 or more were promised a day of briefings by Republican senators covering Middle East issues, the economy, the budget, Social Security and Medicare. Others got dinner with Cheney's wife, Lynne Cheney.