A group that helps female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights is asking a federal judge to block new campaign finance rules that it argues will cripple its ability to participate in state and local elections.

EMILY's List (search) filed a lawsuit on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington asking a judge to block Federal Election Commission (search) regulations that took effect Jan. 1. The group contends that the commission exceeded its authority and violated free-speech rights by imposing the new fund-raising and spending limits.

Among the changes, the FEC placed spending restrictions on groups that collect both "soft money" -- corporate, union and unlimited donations -- and "hard money," limited donations from individuals. Hard money can be spent any way, including direct support for specific candidates, but there are restrictions on the spending of soft money.

Under the new FEC rules, groups must use the coveted hard money to cover at least half the cost of their overhead, nonpartisan voter drives and ads, phone banks and mailings that refer to a federal candidate.

The rules also require nonparty groups that raise more than $1,000 to take only limited donations from individuals if they inform donors that the money will be used to promote or oppose a particular presidential or congressional candidate. They also must disclose their financing and spending to the commission.

"These regulations place arbitrary and capricious requirements on the public communications and fund raising of EMILY's List and political organizations of its type," the group's president, Ellen Malcolm, said in a written statement. EMILY's List is active in local, state and congressional races.

The FEC adopted the new rules last year amid a push by campaign finance watchdogs for restrictions on tax-exempt political groups that were spending tens of millions of dollars in the presidential race.

The commission declined to crack down on them in time for the 2004 election, but imposed new limits starting with the 2005-06 election cycle.