THE way was cleared for a likely four-week election campaign yesterday after a deal was reached on passing the law to push through the Budget.
The Dail is expected to be dissolved next Tuesday with a likely election day on Friday, February 25.
But senior Fianna Fail figures favour an election a week later in the first week of March, to give any new leader more time to bed in after weeks of internal turmoil.
However, given the Government's lack of a majority in the Dail, it would require some major manoeuvring to get it beyond the accepted date.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen will come under pressure to name the date as the Dail sits today for the first time since the collapse of the Government.
Former Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin's grip on the Fianna Fail leadership appeared to tighten after another three party figures backed him.
With nominations now closed, Mr Martin is being chased by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, Social Welfare Minister Eamon O Cuiv and Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin.
However, a majority of party TDs have yet to publicly declare their support and those that have are being intensely lobbied to switch their allegiances.
Mr Lenihan was forced to admit last night that the Finance Bill could be passed by the end of the week -- after previously declaring it would be a "logistical impossibility".
It clears the way for the Dail to be dissolved early next week and a date set for the General Election, with February 25 considered the most likely polling day.
This would be two weeks earlier than the date of Friday, March 11, announced by Mr Cowen last week.
The special Dail sittings this week will be devoted entirely to the Finance Bill -- with none of the usual routines such as Leader's Questions.
A senior Fianna Fail figure told the Irish Independent the party would prefer a longer campaign. "What's the big deal. We need more time. There's no point pretending we don't. I think people get very frenetic when it gets so close to the date. You have to stand back and say it isn't that much of a difference," the source said.
After a cross-party meeting at the Department of Finance yesterday, it emerged Mr Lenihan had dropped his previous insistence that it would be a "logistical impossibility" to pass the Finance Bill this week.
He said he would have preferred to have a fortnight to pass the bill -- but was glad that agreement had been reached to complete it by Saturday.
"Of course, the Taoiseach is aware of the timetable for the Finance Bill and he's in agreement with it," he said.
Fine Gael finance spokesman Michael Noonan said the motion of no confidence in the Government tabled by the opposition gave a lever to make sure an agreement was reached.
Fine Gael and Labour are reserving the right to vote against sections of the Finance Bill, but the Government will be able to get it through by Saturday with the support of the Green Party and Independents Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry.
Mr Noonan said his party would put down a motion of no confidence in Mr Cowen if he did not dissolve the Dail by next Tuesday.
But he indicated that the opposition did not "push too hard" for a definitive election date because it was Mr Cowen's constitutional right to name it.
However, Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said she believed that Friday, February 25, was the likely election date.
Meanwhile, last night two more Fianna Fail TDs announced their retirements, bringing the total number of departures from the party to 16.
Noel Ahern joined his brother, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, by dropping out at his selection convention in Dublin North-West.
And firebrand Cork East TD Ned O'Keeffe also surprising retired and was immediately replaced on the party ticket by his son, Kevin O'Keeffe.
WHAT a bitter end for Brian Cowen. It was his insistence on exercising his (perfectly legal, but politically inadvisable) Taoiseach's prerogative to reshuffle his Cabinet that hastened the inglorious end of his Government.