WASHINGTON - A threejudge federal panel Friday struck down major provisions of the nation’s new campaign finance law, raising deep uncertainties about how next year’s presidential and congressional races will be financed and conducted.
The ruling, which will be appealed immediately to the Supreme Court, would allow the national political parties once again to raise unlimited amounts of money — soft money — from corporations, unions and individuals. At the same time, however, the panel voted to limit the types of attack ads that the parties and independent groups can air, handing a mixed decision to advocates as well as critics of the law known as McCain-Feingold, named for its two main sponsors in the Senate, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.
McCain said Friday in Phoenix he expects a quick appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The Supreme Court has indicated that they will take it up this term,’’ he said. McCain said he is confident the high court will uphold the law.
The challenge to the law is the most important case dealing with the role of money in politics since the Supreme Court’s landmark 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo. The massive set of opinions on Friday dealt with far-reaching issues affecting the scope of free speech in the United States as well as how campaigns for federal office may be conducted.
The panel, splitting 2-1 on most key issues, ordered its ruling to take effect at once. Fred Wertheimer, spokesman for the bill’s congressional sponsors, said they quickly will decide whether to ask the Supreme Court for a stay of the ruling.
Barring such action, federal campaign fund-raising and planning will enter a confusing summer and fall, during which strategists will be uncertain what rules will apply for the 2004 election’s home stretch.
The McCain-Feingold law, which took effect in November after years of debate, barred the national Democratic and Republican parties from raising the millions of dollars in soft money that has helped pay for get-out-thevote efforts, sharp-edged TV ads and other campaign tools in recent elections.
The law also set strict limits on so-called ‘‘issue ads’’ — which often were thinly veiled attack ads — that independent groups could air in a campaign’s closing weeks.
Friday’s ruling would prohibit groups from using soft money to air issue ads, at any time, that appear to urge a federal candidate’s election or defeat — even if the ads don’t say so explicitly.
National parties, meanwhile, could raise soft money again, but they couldn’t spend it on those types of ads.
If upheld, the ruling might allow the parties to pour millions of dollars into party-building efforts such as phone banks and voter registration drives.
Some advocates, however, predicted lawyers and strategists quickly would seek ways to craft new political ads that would withstand legal challenges but still pack a wallop.
The 1,600-page ruling, the longest in the history of the U.S. District Court in Washington, was a complicated mix of opinions, leaving all parties claiming temporary victories while acknowledging setbacks in important areas.
‘‘The ruling restores the ability of political parties to be major unifying players in the political process, and it will stop specialinterest groups (who would not have faced the ban on accepting unregulated sums) from taking over,’’ said Benjamin Ginsberg, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee, one of the more than 80 plaintiffs attacking the new law.
He said it wasn’t clear if the national political parties would start raising unlimited soft money again or wait on the Supreme Court ruling.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who formerly headed the House Republicans’ campaign arm, said he was already preparing to raise soft money for candidates in Virginia.
‘‘This is a huge victory for the parties,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll be able to raise (soft money), . . . we just won’t know how we can spend it.’’
Other political activists, however, said the ruling might benefit Democrats. ‘‘We are pretty close to being back to business as usual,’’ said Michael Berman, who has handled finances for Democratic presidential candidates for more than 20 years. Democrats have been more dependent on soft money financing than Republicans, and therefore many Democrats said it would be to their advantage to have the McCain-Feingold law’s restraints lifted.
Republicans out-raise Democrats in unregulated soft money and in regulated hard-money dollars, but proportionately their lead is greater in hard money. Soft money from labor unions, for example, was vital to Democrats in recent elections.
‘‘I think the Democrats — and especially their presidential candidates — have to be pretty happy,’’ said Eddie Mahe, a veteran Republican consultant.
The ruling’s length and complexity made many in the political world cautious about assessing its effect.
There was confusion over key questions such as whether federal officials and candidates could continue to solicit soft-money contributions for their parties.
The opinion was delivered by Judge Karen Henderson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and U.S. District judges Colleen Kollar-Kotelly and Richard Leon.
The judges, who voted unanimously on only eight of 22 constitutional questions, took five months after oral arguments to issue their opinion, making it likely that the Supreme Court won’t hear the appeal until the fall. Supporters and critics of McCain-Feingold had hoped the panel would rule in time to put the case before the high court this spring, for the sake of clarity in election fund-raising and strategies for 2004.