Federal election officials said Thursday that the president and members of Congress can headline fund-raisers in which state candidates collect "soft money," but they can't be the ones asking for the big checks.

The law, which took effect in November, bans federal officeholders and candidates from soliciting soft money, which includes corporate and union contributions of any size and unlimited donations from any source. State and local candidates can continue raising such money if state law allows it.

Acting on a request for guidance from U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the Federal Election Commission said federal officials and candidates can be featured guests at events for state and local candidate in which soft money is raised. However, prospective donors must be given a disclaimer in writing or told verbally that the federal official isn't soliciting such contributions.

One campaign finance watchdog called it a distinction without a difference. Letting federal officeholders attend state and local candidate soft-money fund-raisers undermines the law's effort to cut ties between federal officials and big donors, said Paul Sanford of the Center for Responsive Politics' FEC Watch project.

"People who attend the fund-raiser aren't going to know the difference," Sanford said.

Commissioners who supported the interpretation of the law say Congress never intended to bar federal officials from attending state and local candidate fund-raisers. The law's solicitation ban "burdens the speech and association rights at the core of the First Amendment," Commissioner Bradley Smith said.

The commission must interpret the law "in a manner that is most likely to protect the constitutional rights of citizens and to withstand judicial review," Smith said.

Several provisions of the law, including the soft-money ban, are currently being challenged in court.