Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is asking whether he can take money from donors who want him to be president, then give it back later. The Federal Election Commission said Wednesday that it will look into the novel question.
Obama is indicating that he wants to at least keep the option of using the public financing system for his presidential campaign if he becomes the Democratic nominee. To do so, the Illinois senator could not spend any money from contributors for political purposes, but instead use federal funding that is expected to total about $85 million for next year's general election.
"Senator Obama has long been a proponent of public financing of campaigns and we are asking the FEC to take a step that could preserve the public financing option for the party's nominees," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
Strategists from both parties estimate that the 2008 race could cost each nominee $500 million - far more than the Presidential Election Campaign Fund can afford. It is financed through the $3 checkoff on federal income tax returns.
Obama has decided to raise unlimited private contributions for the primary and general campaigns, following the lead of chief Democratic rivals Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards. Edwards and Obama also say they won't accept money from lobbyists or political action committees.
But Obama's lawyer, Robert Bauer, suggested in an advisory opinion request to the FEC that Obama may want to participate in the public financing system for the general election if he's nominated and the Republican candidate agreed to do the same.
"Should both major party nominees elect to receive public funding, this would preserve the public financing system, now in danger of collapse," Bauer wrote.
But a Republican will not be nominated for president until next year and it's impossible to know whether the candidate will agree to public financing. So Obama wants to know if he can raise the general election money now and give it back later if an agreement is reached.
While both President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry rejected public funding for their primary campaigns in 2004, they did accept $74.5 million each for the general election campaign.
Three Republican and three Democratic commissioners have 60 days to respond, unless the FEC decides to honor Obama's request for an expedited response. At least one commissioner, Republican Michael Toner, appeared opened to Obama's idea but said he needs to examine the law to see if it would be prohibited.
"We're dealing with uncharted territory here," Toner said. "We have candidates that face unique fundraising challenges and political pressures in the 21st Century, and I think the law needs to adapt whenever possible to meet those challenges."
All other presidential campaigns would have the right to weigh in with their comments before the FEC makes a decision.
Obama established a presidential exploratory committee last month and plans to announce his candidacy on Saturday in Springfield, Ill.