WASHINGTON -- Election regulators set new limits yesterday on nonparty political groups that want to raise large corporate and union donations to influence this fall's elections.
The Federal Election Commission voted 4-to-2 to place some restrictions on outside political groups that register with the commission -- a ruling that will limit how they can use such corporate and union contributions.
The FEC put off decisions on several larger issues, including whether the limits should apply to outside groups that do not register with the commission but are involved in elections.
The commission will begin to consider that question next month in a formal rule-making process that could stretch into the spring.
Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner, said yesterday's ruling leaves plenty of flexibility for partisan groups to collect and spend "soft" money -- corporate, union, and unlimited donations.
"I think there's still a lot of room out there for people to operate," Weintraub said. "You can't stop the flow of money."
At issue yesterday was how the nation's new campaign finance law -- which banned national party committees and federal candidates from soliciting soft money -- affects outside groups still raising the big checks.
Weintraub said the FEC's decision affects only nonparty political groups that collect limited individual donations known as "hard" money -- money they can use however they wish, including calling for the election or defeat of congressional or presidential candidates -- and also raise soft money, which they can only use for more limited purposes.
The commission ruled that when such groups air ads, conduct get-out-the-vote drives, or undertake other activities that promote, support, attack, or oppose only federal candidates, they must use hard money. If a state or local candidate or the general party ticket also is mentioned, they can use a mix of hard and soft money.
Weintraub said the ruling does not address groups that have cropped up to collect only soft money.
Some lawyers who counsel tax-exempt political groups known as 527s and other political entities believed the ruling sounded a large cautionary note for soft-money 527s even if they aren't registered with the FEC.
"It would be irresponsible for an attorney to counsel a 527 group that it could spend soft money on messages the FEC has historically considered federal election activity, or that mentions the name of a federal candidate, without putting the group and their donors at considerable risk," said lawyer Ben Ginsberg, a Republican.
Earlier yesterday, the FEC's Republican chairman scolded his party for trying to get regulators to prohibit outside political groups from spending big corporate and union donations in this fall's presidential election.
Democrats are hoping to use the outside groups to take on some of the activities their party used to have soft money to finance, and to make up some of the financial advantage Republicans have enjoyed under the campaign finance law that took effect after the 2002 election. The GOP raises millions of dollars more in the smaller donations the law permits than the Democratic Party does.
"If Republicans think they can win by silencing their opponents, I think they are going to lose," Chairman Bradley Smith said.
Americans for a Better Country, a Republican group that asked the FEC to decide yesterday's issue, said the ruling restricts much of what it planned to do, but that it will look for ways it can use soft money to counter Democratic groups' spending in the fall election.
"We said from the beginning we are going to raise as much money as we possibly can based on what the commission says we can do," said Frank Donatelli, an attorney for the group.