updated 10/18/2004 2:05:57 PM ET 2004-10-18T18:05:57

Election officials plan to decide before the Nov. 2 election whether congressional and presidential candidates can raise unlimited donations to fund recounts as President Bush and Al Gore could for the multimillion-dollar Florida ballot dispute in 2000.

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The Federal Election Commission, responding to a request for advice by Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry’s campaign, said last month that Bush and Kerry could use their legal compliance funds, financed with individual donations of up to $2,000 each, to cover recount costs.

But the FEC stopped short of addressing whether they could set up separate recount funds bankrolled with unlimited individual donations as Bush and Gore could in the 2000 recount.

The commission plans to decide that question Oct. 28, its last meeting before the election.

It will respond to a request by Washington Senate candidate George Nethercutt and the Washington Republican Party on what kind of money federal candidates and state parties can raise to finance a recount. Nethercutt, a Republican congressman, is challenging Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.

At issue is what effect, if any, a 2002 campaign finance law has on recounts. The law bars federal candidates from raising corporate, union and unlimited donations for election costs, allowing them to collect only limited contributions from individuals and political action committees, which are financed by individual donors.

The Bush campaign, in written comments to the FEC on Kerry’s request, argued that nothing in the new law affects recount fund-raising.

“I think it’s very important to decide it before the election so that campaigns across the country will know what the law is, what the rules are if any federal races enter recounts,” said Commissioner Michael Toner, a Republican who, before joining the commission, served as general counsel to Bush’s campaign in 2000.

In 2000, Bush voluntarily limited recount donations to $5,000 each and raised nearly $14 million for his recount fund. Gore took unlimited contributions and spent about $3.2 million on the Florida dispute.

It is unlikely that the FEC’s decision would affect national party committees, which are currently banned from raising unlimited donations from any source for any purpose.

The Kerry and Bush campaigns are aggressively raising money for their legal compliance funds. Bush’s legal fund had about $6 million on hand and Kerry’s had about $3.4 million as September began, according to the most recent figures available.

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