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Flurry of big-ticket fund raising begins as soft money ban nears

(WASHINGTON) - The spigot on unlimited donations is about to be shut off, pressing political fund-raisers to collect as much as possible in the short term to influence this fall's battle for control of Congress.

For the long term, they'll be looking for ways to get more small donations out of Americans and examining alternatives such as tax-exempt groups where big money could land next.

Under legislation the Senate passed Wednesday and President Bush said he will sign, the current campaign season would be the last in which party committees and candidates may collect unlimited ``soft money'' campaign donations from businesses, unions and others.

Such contributions _ often five- and six-figure checks _ may be used for party-building activities such as get-out-the-vote drives and for operating costs such as party offices.

``People will, and are, certainly trying to get it while they can,'' said Wright Andrews, a longtime lobbyist who supports the soft-money ban. He noted, however, that parties and candidates still will be able to raise regulated ``hard money.''

``Members are working as hard as ever, maybe harder than ever, going after the hard dollars,'' Wright said.

Corporations and labor unions may not make hard money donations, but their political action committees, funded by employees and members, can.

The measure would raise several hard-money limits. For example, individuals could give twice as much to a Senate or House candidate as they can now: $2,000 per election. In all, an individual could give $37,500 to congressional candidates in each two-year election cycle.

``I don't think we're anxious to increase the hard money contributions by 100 percent,'' said Jim Albertine, president of the American League of Lobbyists, who estimates he gets four to six fund-raising letters daily.

Still, Albertine said, lobbyists have not reached the limit of their willingness to contribute.

``It's part of the system and you have to play the cards that are dealt to you, so to speak,'' he said.

Democratic and Republican party committees say they plan to continue raising soft money aggressively until the ban takes effect after the November election. Unlike past campaigns, they will not be able to rely on soft money to help pay off any post-election debts.

Spring is a heavy fund-raising season in Washington, with several party committees holding their biggest events of the year.

Among those, the Republican National Committee will hold a June dinner featuring Bush. The committee hopes to best the roughly $24 million raised at last year's gala. As in the 2001 event, soft-money checks will probably make up a big part of that total.

``Our goal is to always raise as much money as we can and to have as big a resource lead over the Democrats as possible, and we've always succeeded in the past,'' said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Both major parties have been aggressively building their lists of potential hard-money contributors.

The Republican National Committee, for example, raised $22 million in January and February, with $9 out of $10 coming in hard money.

Democrats, who have tended to rely more heavily on soft money than Republicans have, have made small-donor recruitment a major priority.

``We've known this could be coming,'' said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. ``We hired a fund-raiser that does small-dollar fund-raisers in town, we're improving direct mail and doing other things.''

The legislation's opponents say they will sue soon after it is signed to challenge its constitutionality. Its supporters say they are confident the soft-money ban will survive.

Either way, some other avenues for big money will remain. Among them:

_Fund-raisers say national parties may increasingly rely on companies or unions to run political ads, phone banks and voter registration activities.

_Donors could give state and local party committees up to $10,000 each in soft money, if state law permits. The money could be used to run generic get-out-the-vote and voter-registration efforts or help state candidates or parties.

_New nonprofit groups, such as ``issue'' committees that would not be run by party committees or candidates, could share their views and could even be operated by former party employees.

_Tax-exempt groups organized under section 527 of federal tax law may engage in politics and typically run ads without mentioning specific candidates. They will face new restrictions on advertising under the legislation.

Such groups may also have some rules lifted. On Wednesday, a House committee passed legislation that would free so-called 527s that focus on state and local political campaigns from having to disclose their existence or financial activities to the Internal Revenue Service.


The bill is H.R. 3256.

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