updated 12/16/2004 12:16:33 PM ET 2004-12-16T17:16:33

The Federal Election Commission on Thursday elected a new chairman and vice chairman, choosing as its leaders two members who pushed unsuccessfully for tougher limits on partisan political groups.

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The six-member commission’s selection of Democrat Scott Thomas as chairman and Republican Michael Toner as vice chairman was expected. The top two positions rotate between the two parties each year.

Thomas’ latest six-year term expired in 2003, but President Bush has so far shown no sign he plans to replace him. Thomas, a former FEC staff attorney appointed a commissioner in 1986 by President Reagan, is making his fourth appearance as chairman.

“It’s a great place, it’s a great cause, I believe in it,” Thomas told his fellow commissioners after his unanimous election as chairman.

Democratic congressional leaders have urged Bush to replace Thomas with union lawyer Robert Lenhard, who took part in a union lawsuit seeking to overturn a 2002 campaign law that bans labor organizations from donating money to national party committees.

The effort has been opposed by campaign finance watchdogs including Arizona Sen. John McCain. The Republican has told Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., he will object to any attempt to replace Thomas, which means it would take a potentially hard-to-achieve 60 votes for a successor to win Senate confirmation.

Toner, a former Bush campaign and Republican National Committee lawyer, is serving his first term on the commission.

Earlier this year, Thomas and Toner tried to rein in tax-exempt partisan groups, known as 527s, that poured millions of dollars in six- and seven-figure contributions into the presidential race. The other four commissioners rejected their proposal.

Thomas and Toner will lead the commission starting next month. Their predecessors, Chairman Bradley Smith, a Republican, and Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, have both drawn sharp criticism, including calls for their resignations, from McCain and campaign finance groups for opposing tough restrictions on 527 groups.

Smith on Thursday made no specific reference to that controversy in his parting remarks as chairman, instead noting progress the notoriously slow FEC has made in the past year looking into complaints more expeditiously.

In addition, it was the second year in a row that fines the commission extracted from those breaking campaign finance laws exceeded $2 million, an FEC record, he said.

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