Ruling could open 'soft money' floodgates - briefly

Friday's limits on McCain-Feingold bill mark broadest court decision on money in politics since 1976.

Within moments of a federal court ruling that would undo the ban on so-called "soft money," Democratic lobbyist Pat Griffin offered this understated response: "I'm not sure it's not a blessing in disguise."

Democrats had dominated the battle to outlaw soft money - unlimited campaign contributions to national political parties - and yet the ban hurt Democrats most. Republicans are better at raising "hard money" donations to candidates, and the limits on those have doubled to $2,000.

Friday's ruling by a three-judge panel striking down key portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law - but upholding other importants aspects - has thrown the money dimension of the 2004 elections into disarray. Lawyers and officials for both parties are calculating how to proceed: If parties reopen the floodgates for large checks from corporations, labor unions, interest groups, and wealthy individuals, and if the US Supreme Court subsequently reinstates the ban, would the parties have to return that money?

Legal analysts say the Supreme Court is likely to wait to hear the appeal, McConnell v. FEC, until its next term, which begins in October. The court - not bound by any of Friday's rulings - also has the option of issuing a stay until it decides the case itself.

The three lower-court judges' opinions run 1,638 pages - the longest in the history of the US District Court for the District of Columbia - in a case considered the most important one addressing money in politics since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. That decision held that the First Amendment permits government to restrict campaign contributions, but not campaign spending.

If the Supreme Court waits until its next term to hear this latest case, its ruling would likely come right as the primaries begin. New Hampshire's - the earliest - is scheduled for Jan. 27, 2004.

Friday's decision presented a smorgasbord of rulings on campaign finance:

• It stated that national parties can again raise soft money, but it limited the ways that money can be spent. Such funds can be used for get-out-the-vote efforts and voter registration, but not for activities that support or oppose a particular candidate.

• It is more restrictive than the McCain-Feingold law on the use of issue ads for or against federal candidates for office. While the law banned such ads within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election, the Friday court ruling banned such ads at any time.

• The judges let stand the doubling of limits on hard-money contributions, from $1,000 to $2,000.

Because the ruling restricted the ways in which soft money could be used, and put in place the more sweeping "backup" plan on issue ads envisioned in the McCain-Feingold law, the chief sponsors of that law declared partial victory and offered a warning: "Upon initial analysis, while we are pleased with the Supreme Court's split decision upholding important provisions of the campaign finance reform law, unfortunately, it also could create serious loopholes that undermine the law's effectiveness."

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