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FEC Lawyers Recommend Delay in 'Soft Money' Decision

Federal Election Commission (search) lawyers recommended Tuesday that the agency hold off on deciding whether to impose new fund raising and spending limits on tax-exempt groups, which would allow them to spend millions on ads and other activities in this year's presidential race.

FEC lawyers urged the commission to take at least three more months to review the issue. If the FEC approves the recommendation, it would make it unlikely the so-called "soft money" groups would face new regulations before the November election. The commission is expected to consider the proposal Thursday.

At issue is how the nation's campaign finance law affects non-party groups that collect corporate, union and unlimited donations. The law broadly bars the use of soft money in presidential and congressional elections, and the FEC is considering how far the ban goes.

President Bush's re-election campaign, the Republican National Committee (search) and several campaign finance watchdog groups have called on the FEC to crack down on such groups, including several organizations spending soft money on anti-Bush ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. The groups contend their activities are legal, in part because they do not go as far as urging voters to vote against Bush or for Democratic candidate John Kerry.

FEC lawyers told the commission they think more time is needed to consider whether new limits are needed and, if so, which groups they should cover and how. The FEC began considering new rules in March and received written comments from thousands of individuals and groups.

"Careful line-drawing is difficult to do at this pace," the attorneys wrote. They said they think the commission could deal with any violations of the law under its current rules but that clear new regulations may also be valuable.

At least two of the commission's six members want the FEC to adopt rules that would make most members of one type of tax-exempt group — partisan organizations known as 527s because of the part of the tax code they fall under — abide by donation limits and disclose contributions and spending to the commission.

It is unclear whether that proposal, by Republican Commissioner Michael Toner and Democrat Scott Thomas, will draw the additional two votes needed to pass. The commission has three Republicans and three Democrats.