Political action committees raised more than $359 million in the first 18 months of this election cycle, and the biggest beneficiaries of PAC largesse were incumbent lawmakers, according to a Federal Election Commission report issued Thursday.

PAC receipts were up 10.6 percent, and the $293 million the special interest committees doled out represented a 15 percent jump over the 1996 election cycle. Corporate PACs still out-raised and out-spent their counterparts in labor.But when it came to Republicans vs. Democrats, there was little difference.

"The split between parties was almost equal," the FEC report found. "Republican candidates received $69.1 million. . . while Democrats received $65 million."

Meanwhile, with House races entering their final stretch, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee trails its GOP counterpart four-to-one in money it can spend directly on House candidates.

The National Republican Congressional Committee reported it had $7.4 million in hard money, compared with $1.7 million the DCCC had at the end of August.

The DCCC, which started the year hoping to trim the Republicans' slim majority in the House, shrugged off the gap by saying it is exceeding its own fund-raising goals. It still can take out loans to fund activities up to Election Day.

"It's never been part of our strategic planning that we can outspend the Republicans," DCCC spokeswoman Olivia Morgan said. "We just spend smarter and we have better candidates."

The DCCC's hard money accounts are lagging behind it's past performance. In 1996, a presidential year, it had more than $4 million on hand at the end of August. In 1994, when Democrats lost control of Congress to the GOP, the committee had $3.6 million on hand to start September.

Emily's List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates, was at the top of the lists for PAC receipts and disbursements, raising $8 million and spending $7 million.

But Emily's List was missing from the top 50 PACs rated by direct-giving to candidates. That's because it operates as a conduit, with donors sending checks for their favorite candidates through the organization.

"Our members decide," said Stephanie Cohen, spokeswoman for Emily's List. "We do not determine who they should write a check to."