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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Battle-Weary Congress Ponders Role in Electoral Fight

November 17, 2000|JANET HOOK and NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — For veterans of partisan warfare in Congress, it's beginning to feel a lot like impeachment.

For the second time in two years, the Capitol is engulfed in questions about the legitimacy of the presidency. Obscure constitutional mechanisms are being dissected. The nation is engaged in a major civics lesson as the final votes in the Nov. 7 presidential election are being counted.

The spotlight still may be fixed on Florida's ballots, but many members of Congress are moving off the sidelines to become foot soldiers in an increasingly bitter political war that echoes the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

In the current standoff between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, lawmakers are providing strategic and moral support. And they are preparing for the possibility, still distant but not inconceivable, that the whole mess will land in their laps.

Most of the legislators are spread out around the country, having postponed a planned lame-duck session of Congress until Dec. 5--by which time they hope the dust will have settled. But some congressional leaders are in the thick of the battle.

Before Gore offered a plan to end the fight over Florida on national television Wednesday night, he placed calls to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who have been working overtime to keep their caucuses on the same page with the vice president's campaign strategy.

Among Republicans, a key Bush supporter--House Deputy Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)--traveled to Austin, Texas, on Thursday to lend his expertise in election law.

And House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a leading advocate of Clinton's impeachment, is scoping out options that would allow Congress to weigh in on the presidential imbroglio. He found an obscure law, enacted after a disputed 1876 election, that gives the House and Senate power to reject a state's electoral votes. After word of his memo on that topic spread, DeLay aides scrambled to dispel the impression that he was scheming to keep Gore out of office if Bush lost Florida.

In any event, Democratic legal expert Stanley Brand said that law may not be relevant to the controversy. In the past, Brand said, the power to reject electoral votes was used only when Congress questioned the qualifications of electors--not because it objected to a state's voting procedures.

But with access to a wealth of legal scholarship, members of Congress are asking what will happen if the election dispute continues for several weeks or ends in stalemate. Besides DeLay, Republican Reps. William M. Thomas of Bakersfield, James A. Leach of Iowa and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin have made preliminary inquiries about the congressional role in the electoral college count; so have Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and other Democrats.

Under the Constitution, the House and Senate are supposed to witness the official tabulation of electoral votes. Federal statute provides guidelines for the process, which DeLay outlined in a memo he prepared. Almost always, the role of Congress is entirely ceremonial.

But some questions already are occurring to lawmakers: What should Congress do if Florida sends two slates of electors? What happens if one slate is sent but some lawmakers object to it? How would such an objection be resolved?

Leach said that House Republicans "are exceptionally reluctant" to get involved in the election. But he warned that Congress sometimes faces "a domino effect of events that cause people to deal with situations that they're not desirous to deal with"--akin to the impeachment process.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), a member of the GOP leadership, said that it is farfetched to speculate on congressional intervention. Nonetheless, Cox and other lawmakers calculate that if the election were thrown to the House--the fallback mechanism provided by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution if no candidate wins an electoral college majority--Bush would win big. Republicans appear to control 28 state delegations in the next House, more than the majority needed to assure a GOP victory.

Meanwhile, a group of Republicans on Thursday called for an investigation into how inaccurate television network projections on election night potentially depressed GOP turnout in Florida's panhandle--which is in a different time zone than the rest of the state--and elsewhere. Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) proposed a hearing on the matter--the first of many that this election could spawn.

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