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DNC Files McCain Complaint

In a rare Sunday conference call, DNC chair Howard Dean said his party will file a complaint today with the FEC over John McCain's effort to extricate himself from spending limits he originally agreed to months ago. After winning several early primaries, McCain asked to withdraw from the spending limits, a request the FEC generally agrees to if the candidate has not spent any federal matching money, the Washington Post writes.

But McCain has three problems: First, the FEC can refuse to allow a candidate to get out of his commitment if he has used the potential matching funds to secure a campaign loan, something the DNC argues McCain did. In fact, a loan of several million dollars made to his campaign did come when McCain was applying for the matching funds. As the GOP front-runner, McCain has the ability to raise millions more than he was able to in the primary, but the FEC may decide that, by using matching funds as collateral, he has effectively "spent" the money.

Second, McCain, the DNC argues, needs the FEC to act to allow him to withdraw. The commission issued McCain a letter last week making the same argument. Ordinarily, that would not be a problem. But thanks to a spat between Senate Democrats and Republicans, the FEC is currently made up of just two out of the six commissioners it is supposed to have. Party leaders in the upper chamber are at odds over how to fill the remaining four seats, and without a quorum of four, the body cannot act on anything, delaying a decision on McCain's campaign.

Finally, it is highly unlikely that McCain has not already violated some FEC rules. Accepting matching funds means the Arizona Senator would be limited to spending a total of about $54 million in the primary, which doesn't officially end until the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, in early September. FEC reports show McCain has already spent $48.4 million through January 31.

Assuming he did not spend a penny in the four days leading up to Super Tuesday, or in later contests this month, he would be left with just $5.6 million to spend in the remaining seven months of the campaign. But McCain's spending has barely slowed, especially after his camp pulled in more than $12 million in January. When FEC reports for February are due, on March 20, they will likely show McCain has easily busted through the $54 million limit. Then again, because the FEC cannot act on any complaints, he won't face penalties for doing so until at least two more commissioners are approved.

McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee argued that Dean, in his threat to issue a complaint, was being hypocritical. Spokesman Brian Rogers said McCain is currently trying to pull out of the system in exactly the same way Dean did during his presidential run in 2004.

Until the FEC reestablishes a quorum, after the standoff between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell ends, McCain appears trapped in the system, but the agency cannot punish him. After they return, thanks to the complicated issues raised by the requests and complaints, it is likely the matter will wind up in court. A problem the McCain camp needs to prepare for: How will it look when the candidate who is most seen as a crusader for campaign finance reform is battling the FEC in court?