The three Democrats on a federal panel have blocked any action on a proposal that would impose new limits on partisan groups raising money to benefit candidates in this year's election. 

The three members of the Federal Election Commission (search) told Chairman Bradley Smith (search) they needed more time to review comments the FEC had received on the proposal from political groups and campaign finance watchdogs in recent days. Smith is one of three Republicans on the six-member commission.

The FEC now plans to consider the proposal later this month.

At the heart of the issue is whether independent groups can raise and spend tens of millions of dollars to help Republicans — but mostly Democrats — outside the limits imposed by the campaign finance law.

Two Democratic groups that want to defeat President Bush — America Coming Together and the Media Fund — have raised $60 million to $70 million in donations and pledges so far. Others are also raising millions.

Under debate is how the 2002 law broadly barring the use of "soft money" — corporate, union and unlimited contributions — for federal election activity affects the plans of partisan groups that oppose or support Bush's re-election.

Several Democratic activists believe that though national party committees and federal candidates cannot spend soft money, special tax-exempt political groups can.

Looking to stop the Democratic groups or to match them in money, three Republicans formed Americans for a Better Country and asked the FEC whether the group can spend soft money promoting Bush's re-election or only limited "hard money" contributions.

The FEC was to consider a proposal from its attorneys Thursday that the independent groups:

— Would have to use limited hard money for ads that support or oppose presidential or congressional candidates if such federal candidates are the only ones mentioned.

— Would have to use hard money for get-out-the-vote ads, mailings or phone banks that promote or oppose a federal candidate's election.

— Could use a mix of soft and hard money for get-out-the-vote messages that support or oppose a federal candidate and also mention state or local candidates, or that do not mention a particular federal candidate.