FEC Passes on Limits for Independent Groups

Federal regulators on Thursday refused to impose new restrictions on political groups that are spending millions on the presidential election, and Republicans predicted the decision would open the spending floodgates on their side.

Several Democratic groups have already begun spending large donations on advertising and get-out-the-vote activities. Republicans had asked to step in and stop the activities under the campaign law that broadly banned big checks known as "soft money" from federal elections.

But four of the six Federal Election Commission (search) members on Thursday refused to step in, tabling the issue for at least three months.

Democratic commissioner Scott Thomas (search), who joined Republican Michael Toner (search) as the only two to favor imposing new fund-raising and spending limits on the groups, predicted the decision would allow both Republicans and Democrats to engage in no-holds-barred spending this election year. He predicted pro-Republican groups, who have held their fire pending the FEC decision, would quickly surpass the Democrats.

"I think it is possible the Democrats could wind up, from this point on, worse off," Thomas said, adding that he thinks much of the new soft-money donations that used to go to parties before the law went into effect in 2002 will flow to new tax-exempt groups that don't have to disclose their fund raising and spending.

Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub (search), one of four commissioners who voted against new limits, said she supported a proposal by FEC lawyers to take another three months to study the issue.

"I said at the outset I didn't think we had given ourselves enough time to do the job right," Weintraub said.

The FEC lawyers this week urged commissioners to delay a decision until late summer, saying the issue was of such importance that more time was necessary to consider it.

Under debate is how the campaign finance law affects nonparty groups that are spending soft money — corporate, union or unlimited contributions — in the presidential and congressional elections. The law broadly bans soft money from federal elections, including the raising of the big contributions by national party committees.

The Republican Party, President Bush's re-election campaign and several campaign watchdog groups accuse Democrats of violating the ban by creating a network of pro-Democratic soft-money groups that are raising and spending millions of dollars to air anti-Bush ads and pay for get-out-the-vote activities. Critics call the groups a shadow party.

That spending helped flood the airwaves with negative commercials about Bush at a time when the Republican incumbent was airing millions of dollars of ads critical of presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, who was working to rebuild his campaign's finances before going up with his own commercials after the primaries.

The anti-Bush groups argue that their spending is legal, in part because they stop short of calling for Bush's defeat or for Kerry's election. The FEC was considering whether the use of soft money to promote or criticize a federal candidate is enough to violate the soft-money ban, and Thursday decided against saying yes.

Several Republicans had predicted that if the FEC declined to impose new rules GOP donors would flock to pro-Bush groups that so far have operated on a more modest scale than the pro-Democratic groups.

Thomas and Toner had urged the commission to make most partisan tax-exempt groups follow donation limits and disclose contributions and spending to the FEC.