updated 5/12/2004 12:00:26 PM ET 2004-05-12T16:00:26

Election officials may put off a decision on whether to restrict fund-raising by interest groups spending unlimited checks in this year’s elections, a move Republicans predict would embolden their donors to follow Democrats’ lead and pour millions of dollars into the presidential race.

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In a step with broad political implications, Federal Election Commission attorneys Tuesday urged the FEC to take at least three more months to review the issue. If the commission agrees, it is unlikely groups collecting “soft money” — corporate, union and unlimited donations — would face new rules before the Nov. 2 election.

The FEC is expected to consider the proposal Thursday.

Commissioner Michael Toner said FEC inaction would signal to Republicans it’s OK to start a soft-money spending spree by several GOP groups poised to raise and spend big checks quickly.

Republican donors so far have held off on funding soft-money groups on the scale that Democratic-leaning contributors have.

“Delaying a decision is making a decision,” Toner said. “I think if the commission doesn’t act we will see a new bipartisan soft money arms race for the 2004 election.”

Craig Shirley, co-founder of the new pro-President Bush group Americans for a Better Country, anticipates Republican donors would quickly send big checks to groups like his for ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. Republican soft money groups need to counteract what liberal organizations have already done, he said.

“So if they’re bashing Bush, then we have to bash Kerry. If they’re praising Kerry, then we have to praise Bush,” Shirley said.

At issue is how the nation’s new campaign finance law affects nonparty groups that raise and spend soft money. The law broadly bars the use of the large donations in presidential and congressional elections, and the FEC is considering how far that ban reaches.

GOP alleges 'shadow party'
Bush’s re-election campaign, the Republican National Committee and several campaign finance watchdog groups have called on the FEC to crack down on such groups, arguing Democrats have created a “shadow party” of partisan tax-exempt organizations to evade the law’s ban on soft-money spending by national party committees.

The soft-money 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 rival John Kerry.

The FEC lawyers’ recommendation was praised by three Democratic-leaning groups that have been spending soft money on television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts opposing Bush.

“Obviously we feel that this is a sound piece of advice,” said Jim Jordan, a spokesman for the Media Fund, America Coming Together and America Votes. “We’ve maintained all along that the process was moving much too quickly.”

RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, a critic of such groups, said that if adopted, a 90-day delay “sanctions these activities for this election cycle.”

Susan Hirschmann, leader of the pro-GOP Leadership Forum, said her group is ready to collect soft money and use it in this year’s elections.

“We believe it’s very important to get the Republican message out and make sure the Democrats’ message is not left unchallenged,” Hirschmann said. She declined to specify what races her group might be active in, saying only that it would follow the law.

The proposed delay drew immediate criticism from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a lead sponsor of the campaign finance law. McCain accused the FEC of “considering taking a pass on the most critical issue before the commission.”

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

At least two of the commission’s six members want the FEC to make most members of one type of tax-exempt group abide by donation limits and disclose contributions and spending to the commission. Those rules would cover partisan organizations known as 527s, so named because of the section of the tax code they fall under.

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

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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