TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If, as appears likely, the Florida Legislature convenes a special session this week to choose the state's 25 presidential electors, lawmakers will run headfirst into a jarring political reality: The state split straight down the middle between Al Gore and George W. Bush, but the Legislature is overwhelmingly on Bush's side.
Many Republican lawmakers hail from areas that went for Democrat Gore, and a few conservative Democrats come from districts that backed Republican Bush. That means, if it comes to choosing delegates to the electoral college, several politicians will be squeezed between their political party and the people they represent.
"The pressure on these guys is coming from all sides and it's tremendous," said John French, a lobbyist who has spent 30 years here. "I just wish I had the [ulcer drug] Zantac concession for Tallahassee this week."
The rising tension has even sloshed over into the Republican camp, whose leaders now appear less than unified about the urgency of calling a special session. State House Speaker Tom Feeney wants to summon lawmakers immediately to pass a measure locking in the slate of delegates already certified for Bush so the Texas governor wins Florida and the presidency, no matter what happens in court.
"I got my helmet on; I'm ready to go," Feeney said last week.
But state Senate President John McKay has been a little more coy--and apparently a little more cautious. He issued a statement Saturday saying, "The Senate will not be rushed to judgment. We have only one chance to get this right."
The two men have the power, by joint consent, to call a special session of Florida's 160 lawmakers. If they do--and it's more a question of when they do, observers say--legislators such as Will Kendrick are going to feel the pinch.
Kendrick, a sixth-generation Floridian, comes from the hardy stock of goat farmers and oystermen. He is a banker with a big beard, a big laugh and a rich, honey-glazed Panhandle accent.
His North Florida district leaned heavily toward Bush, but he's a Democrat. When he ran for office this year, he took money from Democratic Party leaders, the same ones now taping their hands to beat back the Republican effort to secure the state for Bush.
"But don't think I owe them a darn thing," said Kendrick, a 40-year-old freshman representative. "I realized something long ago: that every man puts his pants on the same way as I do. I'm not going to let Al Gore, the Democratic Party or anybody else tell me what to do."
Political scientists call this kind of party-constituency split "cross-pressure." And though no one expects that the Florida Legislature would pass anything but a Republican-driven measure to help Bush, the special session promises to be great political theater, partly because of the colliding demands placed on lawmakers.
Picture street rallies, back-room power plays and political upheaval as state lawmakers--half of them freshmen--prepare to make history by injecting themselves into a presidential election.
"I was excited going into election day," said Donald Brown, a Republican from DeFuniak Springs and one of 63 freshman House representatives. "But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have such tremendous responsibility."
Republicans hold all the aces in this state capital. Though Florida is home to a colorful tapestry of northern transplants, Jews, blacks, Cubans and senior citizens, the state Legislature is ruled by a monochromatic conservative bloc bent on school prayer, against abortion and for the death penalty. In 1998, when Jeb Bush, younger brother of the Texas governor, won the governor's race, Florida became the first state in the South since Reconstruction to have a Republican trifecta of governor, state House and state Senate. Republicans now outnumber Democrats 77 to 43 in the House and 25 to 15 in the Senate.
Those numbers could be crucial if a special session is called this week. Republican lawmakers hope to pluck away a few Democrats to cobble together a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate. Several have said they are duty bound to name the Bush electors by fiat to protect Florida's votes from being left out of the electoral college, should litigation continue.
Republicans have the votes to pass any measure they want. But with the two-thirds majority they could waive rules and speed up the process to ensure that the Bush slate of electors is cemented into law before Dec. 12, when all states must submit a list of their delegates to the electoral college. It's not clear yet if Republican lawmakers will push to pass a resolution--which would be quicker--or a bill, which would require the governor's signature.
Whichever way they go, Kendrick, the Panhandle Democrat, said he is willing to help.
"We're not here to set road barriers. If the Republicans need me to speed this up, I'll do it."
Defections traditionally are more of a problem for the Democratic caucus in Florida than for Republicans.