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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Vote Fight Hits the Courts

Florida Sets Deadline as GOP Suit to Stop Recount Is Rejected

Congressional Leaders Put Off Session

November 14, 2000|JANET HOOK and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In a clear sign of the political distractions caused by the contested presidential election, congressional leaders decided Monday to postpone a scheduled lame-duck session until early next month--when they hope the next White House occupant will be known.

The House returned Monday for an unusual postelection session, and the Senate was scheduled to follow suit today. But congressional leaders quickly decided to put off any serious work until Dec. 5, concluding that the major issues still facing the lame-duck Congress cannot be settled with the public--and lawmakers--focused on the imbroglio surrounding the recount of presidential ballots in Florida.

"There's too much uncertainty swirling around both Washington and the presidential campaign to conclude anything this week," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), after reaching agreement with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on the postponement.

When Congress adjourned shortly before election day, it left many issues--including prospective tax cuts, education spending and immigration policy--to be resolved during the lame-duck session. Lawmakers hoped that last week's election would provide some guidance on which direction to steer those issues. Instead, they got a message even more muddled than before.

"We had hoped that a lot of this would be resolved with the election, but now there is a great big question mark as to how we are going to proceed," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who chairs the House Rules Committee.

Even President Clinton, who had been pressing Congress to finish its business, struck a more conciliatory stance Monday, signaling through his aides a willingness to sign a stopgap budget measure that would keep all government programs running through Dec. 5.

"The White House recognized that Congress was so preoccupied with outside matters that the prospect of getting any real work done this week was slim," said Linda Ricci, a spokeswoman for the White House budget office.

The tumult and uncertainty enveloping Capitol Hill also sent a unique welcome-to-Washington message for newly elected House members, who were in town for orientation sessions.

"There is a real interest in the freshman class to work in a bipartisan way," said Rep.-elect Adam Schiff, the Democratic state senator from Burbank who defeated Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale) in California's 27th District. "I hope that would not be precluded by a bitter fight" over who wins the White House.

In the absence of a final budget agreement, the House on Monday approved by voice vote the stopgap measure funding federal programs through Dec. 5. The Senate is expected to follow suit today. The measure is needed because Capitol Hill's unfinished business includes providing money for many of the largest Cabinet departments, including Education, Health and Human Services, Justice, Commerce and State.

The scene in congressional offices underscored where the action--and interest--was on Monday. Television sets usually tuned to C-SPAN's coverage of legislative proceedings were switched to news channels as lawmakers and their aides behaved much like many others around the country: watching the ongoing tussle in Florida between the campaigns of the GOP's Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore.

Even Rogan, facing the end of his House career and packing his belongings, was transfixed. "What's the latest from Florida?" he asked a reporter.

"There's so much uncertainty," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). "It's not the best time" to iron out the remaining legislative disputes.

Many lawmakers were relieved by the decision to postpone the lame-duck session. "Any kind of debate that borders on us getting testy with each other could turn on us real quick," given the passions surrounding the disputed presidential results, said Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres).

Republicans sought to put part of the onus for postponing the lame-duck session on Clinton. Noting that he is gone this week on a trip to Asia, they said that it would be difficult to reach agreement on outstanding issues. But the major factor was the unresolved presidential race--especially since both parties have been looking to the outcome to shape their final strategies for the legislative session.

For example, many lawmakers believe that the GOP would be more likely to push to revive a tax-cut bill that provides increased incentives for retirement savings if Gore were to win. If Bush wins, the argument goes, Republicans would let that modest proposal die and push for more sweeping tax cuts next year.

The Bush and Gore campaigns, for their parts, have worked to keep the congressional wing of their parties informed of--and in step with--their postelection strategies.

Gore aides, in particular, aggressively pressed the vice president's case late last week after some Senate Democrats publicly expressed reservations about the possibility of a legal challenge to Florida's balloting.

Responding to Gore campaign requests for a more vocal show of support, House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) offered such backing at a hastily arranged news conference Friday. Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), on Monday conducted a telephone conference call with the House Democratic Caucus to brief it on the latest developments and the campaign's position.

Bill Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, was scheduled to meet today with Senate Democrats.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, appeared to fear that Bush was losing the public relations war surrounding events in Florida--and could lose his slim lead in the state as the hand recount in selected counties proceeds.

"They are concerned," said Michelle Davis, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). "We don't have an edge. It's very hard to explain."

*

Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this story.

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