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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

From Capitol Hill, Democrats' Views Begin to Cloud

Congress: Anticipation for court ruling is paired with expectations that Gore may need to surrender soon. Meanwhile, Republicans talk strategy.

November 21, 2000|NICK ANDERSON and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats predicted Monday that pressure will mount on Al Gore to concede the presidential election if his legal effort to have hand-counted totals included in Florida's final vote tally fails.

As Gore's lawsuit was being argued Monday before the Florida Supreme Court, some Democratic lawmakers said they feared the vice president's hopes of overtaking Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush were slipping--no matter what the outcome of the court battle.

One centrist Democrat, Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia, said publicly what others were mulling privately as the clock continued to tick without any apparent trend-breaking shifts in the unofficial recount totals. Bush on Monday afternoon led by 930 votes statewide in the official count.

"I'm not sure Gore is going to win on a hand recount," Moran said. "The chances of a Gore presidency are diminishing with every day that passes."

Democrats on Capitol Hill are a key constituency in Gore's fight for the White House. Since the Nov. 7 election, the Gore campaign has kept prominent lawmakers apprised of its strategy with several conference calls and at least one day of face-to-face briefings with chairman Bill Daley.

With a few early exceptions, congressional Democrats have been nearly unanimous in supporting Gore. But that consensus could break if he seeks to take legal action beyond the question of including hand recounts.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), one of the most senior members of the House, said if Gore loses his case in the Florida Supreme Court--and any subsequent appeal in federal court--the vice president should start "reaching out and healing the wounds--attempting to show the American people that our country is really stronger than our politics."

Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who as chairman of the party's caucus is the No. 3 House Democrat, said flatly: "We all want to see what the Florida Supreme Court says. That will determine the issue."

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, were quietly eyeing their options in case the dynamic in the courts and the vote-counting suddenly swings against Bush. Some have broached the possibility of congressional intervention to block a Democratic slate of Florida electors--a scenario still improbable but not impossible.

Florida's 15 Republican representatives in Washington have been among the most vocal critics of the ongoing recounts in the state that holds the key to electoral college victory.

Rep. Cliff Stearns said the GOP could pursue at least three remedies if the Bush campaign fails to prevail in the state Supreme Court and falls behind Gore in the vote count. First, he said, all Florida counties would have to recount--not just the Democratic strongholds of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade. Second, the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature could weigh in on what he called a "corrupted" process. And third, Florida's congressional delegation, under federal law, could try to block Democratic electoral votes from the state when the House and Senate meet in January to count those votes.

Still, Stearns said that if events turn in Gore's favor, the GOP would have to consider how far it would want to fight to keep him out of office. "In America and a democracy, you have to accept ultimately what happens," he said. The best alternative for a losing candidate, Stearns said, would be to run and win in four years.

But Republicans were clearly buoyed Monday by Bush's continued edge in the vote counts. Rep. Tillie K. Fowler, a GOP House leader from the Jacksonville area, said the Democrats "are not picking up enough" from the recount to put Gore into the White House. Bush "won the first count, he won the second count. He's won the overseas absentee ballots. And the way things are trending, it's going to be George Bush again, for the fourth time, winning the state of Florida," Fowler said.

Democrats Monday were far from ready to concede Florida. Publicly, most still are standing with Gore in support of hand recounts in areas that could turn up a decisive number of yet-uncounted Democratic votes. But, perhaps with an eye on the party's fortunes in subsequent elections, some now are affirming that both candidates should accept the results of the hand recounts.

"At the end of those recounts, that should be the end of the process," said Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Visalia). "At that point, there would have to be some very compelling reason to continue. And to date, I am not aware of anything I would think merits continued legal action."

Even if the hand recounts are allowed by the courts, a senior Democratic senator who spoke on condition of anonymity said he despaired of Gore's chances. "I don't know how they are going to do it."

But the lawmakers, like much of the country, were enthralled by the ongoing political drama. Some drew sports analogies. "It's the World Series," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). "Bush is up 3 games to 2, but Gore is home for the last two games. The sixth game is the decision in [the Florida Supreme Court] hearing, which he must win. The seventh game is winning the hand recount."

The question of whether Gore will continue his legal push beyond seeking a hand recount may already be moot. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that last week, Daley indicated to House Democrats that the Gore campaign would not pursue further legal action if it got a hand recount and lost.

*

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this story.

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