Lawyers for groups whose activities in support of Democrat John Kerry (search) have been challenged by President Bush's re-election campaign told election officials Thursday that their spending is legal.

The Federal Election Commission (search) is considering whether nonparty groups should be able to continue using soft money — corporate, union and unlimited donations — in congressional and presidential elections. A new campaign law broadly bans the use of soft money in federal elections, and the FEC is considering how far those limits should go.

Bob Bauer, attorney for America Coming Together (search), a pro-Kerry group that plans to spend millions in support of him and other Democratic candidates, said its plans do not fall under the law's soft-money ban.

On the second day of a two-day hearing, Bauer told the FEC that "robust criticism" of the Bush administration is a legitimate part of efforts to mobilize voters and that any restrictions would undermine that.

"That's an extraordinary regulatory result, certainly one that I do not believe to be healthy," Bauer said.

Joe Sandler, an attorney representing the MoveOn.org Voter Fund (search), which has spent millions in soft money on TV ads promoting Kerry and opposing Bush, noted that its big donors could legally run the same ads themselves.

"All they're doing by contributing to the Voter Fund is magnifying the impact of the 170,000 small donations, $10, $20, $30, $40," Sandler said. "And we submit that no good purpose would be served by preventing those small donors from having their voices heard in the national debate on these issues."

MoveOn reported Thursday that its partisan soft-money arm has raised $17 million since October, including about $7 million from January through March. It started April with $3.1 million in the bank. Its hard money political action committee raised at least $1.5 million so far this year and began the month with about that much on hand.

America Coming Together, MoveOn and the Media Fund (search) are targeted in a complaint by Bush's re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee that asks the government to ban the groups' soft-money activities.

The RNC and Bush campaign did not testify at the hearing but, in written comments, urged the FEC to adopt new restrictions. Campaign finance watchdogs also argued in favor of new restrictions, including banning nonparty groups from spending soft money in congressional and federal elections.

The commission plans to decide on the proposals next month.