WASHINGTON — The offices on two floors of a downtown Washington building are sitting vacant, computers, fax machines and telephones plugged in and ready. And the General Services Administration is eager to hand over the keys.
The only thing missing is the next president.
As the country waits to know who will lead it--Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush--the bureaucratic machinery of the presidential transition, arguably the largest institutional undertaking in the world, is officially on hold.
On Wednesday, GSA Administrator David J. Barram had planned to welcome the president-elect's team to the offices his agency has spent six months preparing. But now the agency, which since 1963 has served as office manager to those preparing to take over the government, is keeping the keys in hand.
"We know the clock's running for whoever the president will be, but that's not our problem," GSA Deputy Administrator Thurman Davis said Thursday. "We'll make the call on handing over the offices whenever the determination is made on who is going to be president. If we get lawsuits, we cannot know who the winner is. We won't know. We'll just have to wait."
Davis said his staff has been in touch with Clay Johnson, who has been preparing to manage the Texas governor's transition for months, and Roy Neel, who is doing the same for Vice President Gore.
"They're pretty understanding. They know we can't do anything more at this point," Davis said.
But with the Bush team in Austin, Texas, already making its initial transition moves and Gore's campaign manager Bill Daley crying foul, it is unclear just how understanding the two candidates will be--and for how long.
Bush was preparing Thursday to announce key roles in his administration for retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell--likely to be named secretary of State--and former Transportation Secretary Andrew Card--probably as White House chief of staff. Bush running mate Dick Cheney would head the Republican transition team in the event of a victory, aides said.
Daley criticized the Bush moves, telling reporters that they are premature and "run the risk of dividing the American people."
But Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove said that Bush would be lax if he waited any longer.
"The process ought to move forward," Rove said. "We cannot stop and wait until the last ballot struggles in . . . until an orderly and necessary set of steps is taken."
Under normal circumstances, a president-elect has 73 days between the election and the inauguration to fill a host of positions, formulate policies, rethink agency management and crunch a whole year's budget using a novice staff at the nadir of its knowledge of Washington.
Even that time frame has proved to be perilously short for many presidents. Many scholars agree that errors committed during Jimmy Carter's transition set his administration on shaky footing for the next four years. The George Bush White House was slow to recover from fallout from the doomed nomination of former Texas Sen. John Tower as Defense secretary. President Clinton's success in his first term was hindered when he delayed decisions on key appointments until well into the transition.
This year, the transition time already has been pared to 72 days as of today. And the clock is ticking.
"It's one of the hidden consequences of this delayed victory," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. Hess was a consultant to Carter's transition after his election in 1976.
"We know that somebody is going to put his hand on the Bible and raise his other hand on the Capitol steps on Jan. 20," Hess said. "But since we don't know who it's going to be and we don't know quite when we will know, that person can't or won't do some of the things that are very important to do in this period to prepare to be president."
For a generation, at least since Richard Nixon left the White House, presidential candidates have not waited for the election to prepare to take power. Top aides to Gore and Bush have been quietly working for months on candidates for Cabinet seats and top staff positions. But the transition does not really begin until the election is official.
The longer the results of the election remain in doubt, the more problems multiply. Already, Bush advisors complain privately that people will be less willing to commit to top positions until they are certain that the election results will stand.
"You can imagine the motivational level of someone who's asked, 'Would you like to be secretary of X?' when you're not even hearing that from a president-elect," said Richard Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former Ronald Reagan administration official. "If this thing is thrown into doubt for long, I think it's going to be increasingly difficult for anyone to keep focused on the transition issues."
This year, the GSA has $5.3 million appropriated by Congress to fund the transition and 90,000 square feet of office space ready in a leased building on G Street, three blocks from the White House. The complex is big enough to accommodate 540 people, said June Huber, who has directed the transition effort for the GSA since March.
Inside, a waiting room decorated in soothing peach and gray tones awaits those applying for administration jobs. Offices already are wired for Internet access and equipped with computers and software requested by the Bush and Gore camps. There are stacks of Washington street maps to help newcomers navigate the city.
But the offices remain silent and empty.
"It's like we had a party set but nobody came," GSA spokeswoman Vicki Reath said. "We were all ready to go."