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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Leaders Stand By Their Parties' Decisions

Congress: Republicans fear Democrats are leading in the court of public opinion. But both sides are looking for an end to the stalemate.

November 15, 2000|JANET HOOK and NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As the presidential election imbroglio dragged into its second week, some Republicans in Congress worried aloud Tuesday that George W. Bush's campaign is losing ground in the court of public opinion while Democrats hardened their resolve to support ongoing vote recounts in Florida.

Many Republicans welcomed Tuesday's state court ruling that upheld a Tuesday evening deadline for certifying Florida's contested presidential election results, and lauded the announcement that Bush had a 300-vote lead. But they acknowledged that the ruling and the vote count was far from conclusive, given that it left open the prospect that new vote totals stemming from hand recounts could be accepted at a later date.

Looking beyond Tuesday's ruling, the GOP leaders warned that even if Bush ends up winning Florida--and thus the White House--he could be hurt by relentless Democratic arguments that he is trying to steal the election from Al Gore.

"I think we are losing the public relations battle, the battle of convincing the American people we are trying to do the right thing," said Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) after a meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday. "There was frustration [among Republicans] who think we don't know how to fight dirty and Al Gore does."

Democrats, meanwhile, remained unflagging in their support for the Gore campaign's effort to get hand recounts in certain Florida counties--both when they were briefed on the Florida situation Tuesday morning by Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley and, later in the day, when Bush's 300-vote lead was announced.

"We're unified," said Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), a key campaign liaison to Congress. "We're strongly supporting the vice president."

But some lawmakers are weary of the fight and they called on Bush and Gore to negotiate a way to bring it to a close.

"I'd like to see them step up and have a meeting" to settle the dispute, said Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.). "I would hope Gore would initiate something like that."

Endorsing a similar approach, Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) said: "Both camps are making serious errors if they continue to contest this."

Members of Congress were preoccupied by the presidential standoff as they met briefly for the first time since the Nov. 7 election, then quickly postponed their scheduled lame-duck session until early December.

They soldiered on with some routines, as both parties in the House voted to reinstall their team of top leaders for next year's Congress. Republicans reelected House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and the rest of his leadership team; Democrats again named Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) as their leader. But those housekeeping matters were overshadowed by the presidential election dispute.

Many Republicans viewed Tuesday's court ruling on certification of Florida's results as a crucial victory in Bush's efforts to cut off hand recounts in selected counties.

"The election's over!" declared Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.).

Said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), "It's a positive sign that the rule of law is prevailing."

But others remained concerned that the process would still drag on, with appeals and other maneuvers. "The question is still a jump ball," said Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.).

At Tuesday's meeting of House Republicans, many expressed fear that the Gore camp was getting its message out more effectively than the Bush campaign.

Several Republicans said that their party needed to play postelection political hardball, step-for-step with the Democrats.

"What party has a history of stealing elections?" said Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), referring to disputed Democratic victories decades ago in Chicago and south Texas, among other places. "They will kick us in the shins, poke us in the eye, do whatever's necessary to win."

Some argued that congressional Republicans themselves should be more involved in making Bush's case to the public--and some took the gloves off to do so.

"I believe the Democrats are trying to steal this election," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas).

Most Democrats closed ranks behind the Gore campaign--in contrast to last week, when some senators went public with reservations about Gore's threatening to seek legal recourse.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a leader among party centrists, said: "Every Democrat believes we ought to get this election counted and counted properly."

Hoyer said that he would be willing to wait a month to find out the result. "The country's not in a crisis," he said.

Newly elected Democrats were among those standing behind their leaders. "In the end, whatever side you want to sit on, it's better to err on the side of counting votes. That favors democracy with a small 'd,' " said Rep.-elect Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). "You never want to be on the side of not counting votes."

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Democrats were singing the same tune. Sen. Harry Reid, the minority whip, said that he had endured a situation similar to the recount in Florida when he won an election in Nevada in 1998 by 428 votes.

The issue then, Reid said, was whether to allow his Republican challenger--trailing in initial tallies--to seek an extension of the statutory deadline for certifying the state vote to permit a hand recount.

"I never opposed their legal efforts and never went into court," Reid said. "In fact, I instructed my attorneys not to oppose an extension of the [certification] deadline. I knew that a hand count was the only way to win my election, fair and square. An election should be decided by the people, not the courts."

*

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this story.

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