The commissioners voted 6-0 against their auditors' recommendation that Clinton and Dole repay millions because they illegally coordinated advertising run by the Democratic and Republican parties, causing their 1996 presidential campaigns to exceed spending limits.
The decision wiped out most of the original recommendation that the Clinton campaign repay $7 million and the Dole campaign $17.7 million.
The commission had already decided to reduce any possible Dole repayment by millions of dollars by considering Republican ads as expenditures for the primary rather than the general election, changing the repayment formula.
Thursday's vote, limited to the repayment issue, didn't definitively resolve whether the party ads should be considered contributions to the Clinton and Dole efforts.
The auditors still are expected to refer the issue for investigation by the FEC's enforcement division. But it is doubtful the commission would approve any other enforcement action after rejecting the repayment. Four votes are needed for the FEC to take action.
The commissioners made it clear they didn't accept the auditors' reasoning.
"I don't adopt the recommendations, I don't adopt the findings, and I don't adopt the legal analysis," said Commissioner Karl Sandstrom, a Democratic appointee.
Commissioner Lee Ann Elliott, a Republican, said party "issue ads" shouldn't be considered campaign spending if they don't specifically urge people to vote.
"There is an exhortation to vote for a specific candidate in an election that should be our standard," she said.
Russell Verney, head of Ross Perot's Reform Party, said he wasn't surprised by the vote. "Their function is to protect the parties," he said of the commissioners.
Other issues raised in the audits remain before the commission, including whether the Dole campaign overcharged the press and Secret Service for flights on campaign planes.