We noted this yesterday. But The Washington Post does a good job today in sizing up the situation and its possible mammoth consequences for McCain's campaign.
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There are really two completely separate issues here.
First, McCain opted in to the public finance system for the primaries last year. It meant that his struggling campaign would get $5.8 million in public matching funds in March. Now that he's effectively the Republican nominee, he wants out, because the system entails a spending limit of $54 million through the end of August. He's almost spent that much already, according to the Post.
So the McCain campaign sent the Federal Election Commission a letter (pdf) earlier this month saying that he was opting out. But there's a problem. And FEC Chairman David Mason, a Republican, made it plain in his letter (pdf) yesterday: McCain can't tell the FEC that he's out of the system. He can only ask.
And the FEC, which normally has six commissioners, can't give him an answer until it has a quorum of four commissioners. It currently only has two. That's because the Senate has been deadlocked over four nominees; Democrats insist on a separate confirmation vote for vote-suppression guru Hans von Spakovsky, and Republicans insist on a single vote for all nominees.
The second issue has to do with McCain's tricky loan and whether the FEC will conclude that it locked him into the system. But for now, that's really ancillary to the first issue.
It is a serious issue. As the Post reports, "Knowingly violating the spending limit is a criminal offense that could put McCain at risk of stiff fines and up to five years in prison."