Federal election officials on Monday sued a pro-Republican political group to try to force it to comply with campaign finance limits, the first lawsuit of its kind to arise from big-money fundraising during the 2004 elections.

The Federal Election Commission (search) filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Washington against the Club for Growth. The group spent at least $21 million in the 2003-04 election cycle.

The FEC contends the group spent enough in federal races to require it to file with the commission as a political committee and to abide by contribution and spending limits.

A Club for Growth (search) spokesman did not immediately respond to a message left at his office seeking comment.

FEC Vice Chairman Michael Toner (search) called the case "one of the most important suits the commission has brought in recent years." The lawsuit is the first to result from several complaints filed against both pro-Republican and pro-Democratic "soft money groups," and could serve as a test case to see if the commission can control the groups without new congressional legislation or FEC rules.

Campaign finance watchdogs contend the groups spent millions of dollars in corporate, union and unlimited contributions from individuals in the 2004 election despite a new law banning the use of such money in presidential and congressional races.

"At stake is whether Club for Growth will be able to continue raising and spending millions of dollars in soft money for activities influencing federal elections," said Toner, a Republican.

President Bush's re-election campaign and the sponsors of the 2002 campaign finance law sued the FEC last year, accusing it of failing to enforce the law and crack down on soft money spending, particularly in the presidential race. Those cases are pending in federal court.

The commission's lawsuit against the Club for Growth accuses the group of failing to comply with federal fundraising and spending rules as far back as 2000.

The complaint says the group told prospective donors their money would be used to help elect or defeat specific candidates, and that it raised more than $4 million last year alone that exceeded federal contribution limits.

The group spent more than $1 million in the past three elections on ads targeting specific campaigns, often going so far as urging voters to elect or defeat candidates, the lawsuit says.