updated 2/8/2009 3:11:23 PM ET 2009-02-08T20:11:23

Republicans are making another run at overturning a ban on unlimited "soft money" contributions. Their Democratic rivals say it is an attempt to bring big money back to politics because the GOP can't keep up with President Barack Obama's fundraising machine.

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The Republican National Committee is suing to overturn part of a ban on unlimited contributions passed by Congress in 2002 and upheld by the Supreme Court a year later.

The suit is against the Federal Elections Commission, which enforces the law, but the Democratic National Committee and House Democrats campaign chief Rep. Chris Van Hollen have asked the court to let them defend the law as well. The GOP is fighting to keep the Democrats out of the courtroom dispute.

Obama raised record amounts
The party positions are ironic, given how the law got its start. The law, known as McCain-Feingold after the senators who sponsored it, restricts donations by individuals to $28,500 per year to the political parties and prohibits the parties from accepting any corporate or labor union contributions.

Before the law was enacted, the two parties were raising hundreds of millions in soft money, with rich individuals, businesses and unions giving a million or more. Experts originally thought that Democrats had the most to lose under the ban since the Democrats relied more heavily on those contributions.

But Obama's presidential campaign raised record amounts of money under the limits, with nearly 4 million donors giving about $750 million to his effort.

A week after Obama won the election, the Republican National Committee filed suit, even though its candidate for president, John McCain, was one of the authors of the soft-money ban, and Republican President George W. Bush had signed it into law.

"Having failed to connect with ordinary Americans, the Republican Party is trying to change the rules to suit their political objectives, rather than work harder within the law to reach the American people," said DNC executive director Jen O'Malley Dillon.

The RNC is using a familiar argument against the soft money ban — saying it violates the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech and association when people can't pay to promote ideas. The party isn't arguing with the ban on unlimited donations to candidates for federal office — president or Congress.

'Nonfederal' activities should be allowed
Republicans say Congress went too far by limiting contributions for "nonfederal" activities. They argue that they should be able to use soft money to help elect their candidates to state offices, finance congressional redistricting efforts by state Republican parties following the 2010 census, and fund lobbying efforts on federal legislative issues. They even want to raise soft money to pay legal fees for their lawsuit.

"We are talking about the federal campaign finance law, not the federal government gets to legislate everything that happens in democracy law," said Jim Bopp, an RNC member and attorney arguing the party's case. The law, he said, "overreached by going into areas that have absolutely no campaign finance interests."

Bopp said the party is fighting the Democrats' attempt to defend the law because it would slow down the case and because the Democrats could get their hands on confidential information like their lobbying plans. "The FEC can handle it," he said.

Democrats say the suit is merely an attempt by the RNC to test the law against a reconstituted Supreme Court. Since the 2003 ruling the court has a different makeup, with a new chief justice in John G. Roberts and a new justice in Samuel Alito.

The case is before a three-judge panel, which has said it will be handled on an expedited basis and likely be decided by summer. After the district court makes its decision, the case can be appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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