President Bush's reelection campaign plans to join forces with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to take legal action to force the Federal Election Commission to crack down on political organizations that exploit a loophole in campaign-finance law to spend unregulated funds, the White House announced Thursday morning.
McCain had tried to block the so-called 527 groups with a complaint to the FEC, but because that body did not act on the complaint in 120 days, opponents of the 527s can now go to the courts.
"The president said he wanted to work together [with McCain] to pursue court action to shut down all the ads and activity by these shadowy 527 groups," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One after Bush spoke to McCain by telephone from the presidential jet Thursday morning.
The issue of the 527 groups has gained prominence because of the ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an organization that has challenged Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's Vietnam War record. Bush has declined a request by both Kerry and McCain to denounce that group specifically, saying he is opposed to all 527 groups, which are named for the section of the tax code that governs them.
Republicans have been moving aggressively in recent months to establish 527 organizations to raise money to compete with similar Democratic groups, some of which have already spent tens of millions of dollars in ads attacking Bush.
McClellan said Bush's brief call to McCain was intended to relieve the senator's publicly voiced concerns about the two presidential campaigns making an issue of the Vietnam War. But Bush did not offer the specific condemnation of the Swift Boat group that McCain had sought.
The action promised today by McClellan is largely symbolic. There is virtually no chance that a lawsuit could be resolved before the Nov. 2 election. But the Bush campaign is eager to regain its footing on the issue after Benjamin L. Ginsberg, the chief outside counsel to the campaign, resigned Wednesday after revealing that he had done work for the Swift boat group. The campaign had denied any ties between it and the Swift boat veterans group.
At the news conference in Washington, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said the Bush campaign's proposed legal action was "smoke screen" because "there are First Amendment issues" that would prevent courts from banning the 527 groups' activities, the Associated Press reported.
Bush's plans for legal action with McCain came as the Kerry campaign, at McCain's request, announced that it would yank a television ad that cites the Arizona senator. The ad, which defends Kerry against the Swift boat veterans' group attacks, includes quotes from McCain during his campaign against Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries.
On the campaign trail, Kerry has been anxious to put to rest questions about his record in Vietnam and his protests after he returned from the war. Campaigning in Minnesota on Thursday, Kerry challenged Bush to a series of weekly debates.
"America deserves a discussion like we're having here today, which I'm prepared to have with this president every single week from now until the election," Kerry said during a campaign appearance at Anoka Technical College, AP reported.
The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has proposed a series of three presidential debates stretched over three weeks starting Sept. 30. The commission also has proposed a vice presidential debate on Oct. 5. Neither campaign has agreed to the commission's schedule.
Bush's campaign spokesman, Steve Schmidt, dismissed Kerry's debate challenge. "There will be a time for debates after the convention, and during the next few weeks, John Kerry should take the time to finish the debates with himself," Schmidt told the news service.
Bush, hitting the campaign trail after a week at his Texas ranch, was scheduled to campaign Thursday at several stops in New Mexico before returning to Washington.
In his appearance here, Bush said his Democratic opponent would have to raise taxes to keep his campaign promises. "You know how tempting it is to get out in front of the people and make promise after promise," Bush said. "If he gets elected, he's going to tax you, but the good news is we're not going to let him get elected."
Responding later, Kerry's campaign spokesman, Phil Singer, told the AP that Bush's tax cuts had "placed an increasingly larger portion of the tax burden onto the middle class."
"George Bush seems to have a problem being straight with the American people," Singer said. "John Kerry has been very clear about the fact that he will cut taxes for 98 percent of Americans."
Kerry's running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, also was on the trail Thursday in New Mexico, a state with five electoral votes that Bush lost to Vice President Gore in 2000 by less than 400 votes.
Staff writer Mark Stencel in Washington contributed to this report.