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GOP Lawmakers' Rhetoric on Recount Reaches Fever Pitch

Politics: Barbs raise the prospect of Congress getting involved in vote morass. Anger at Gore's tactics and long-held hostility to Clinton fuel the onslaught.


WASHINGTON — Amid head-spinning legal developments in the disputed presidential race, one political reality has become clear: Rage among Republican members of Congress toward Democratic tactics in the Florida recount has grown so heated, and their rhetoric so inflammatory, that it seems unlikely they could ever accept an Al Gore presidency as legitimate.

The verbal onslaught also has laid the groundwork for a prospect that once had seemed purely theoretical: that Congress will wade into the election mess. Taking a first step in that direction, House Republicans on Wednesday proposed legislation to force Florida to count military absentee ballots that had been discarded under Democratic objections.

GOP anger at the Gore team's tactics in the battle over Florida's 25 electoral votes has spread beyond combative conservatives such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to include the party's more moderate lawmakers. The emotions roared to the surface Wednesday in a stormy conference call between House Republicans and George W. Bush's campaign strategist, Karl Rove.

"There is total unanimity in my party," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a leading moderate. "We believe George Bush won this election. To me, [Gore's strategy in Florida] is just theft."

Some Republicans have begun to openly entertain the possibility of exercising Congress' little-known power to reject electoral votes if Gore ekes out victory in Florida and, hence, the entire election.

"If I believe the votes were stolen, I will not vote to accept the Florida electoral votes," said Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.).

Even if Gore loses, the escalation of GOP attacks may do lasting damage to Bush's ability as president to work with Democrats.

"Overheated rhetoric and political threats will only make it more difficult for the nation to unite when the next president takes office," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said in a joint statement Wednesday.

Attacks Escalated After Florida Supreme Court Ruling

GOP attacks on Gore took a particularly bitter turn in the wake of efforts last week by the Democrats to throw out absentee ballots from military personnel overseas. And they escalated after the state Supreme Court's ruling Tuesday to require Florida to include the results of manual recounts in its final vote total.

Democrats have had disappointments of their own in Florida, but these twists and turns have not generally provoked the kind of boiling outrage that has flooded the GOP. That is, in part, because Gore consistently has trailed in the Florida count, causing some Democrats to steel themselves to the prospect of a Bush victory. Republicans, in contrast, have been assuming Bush would prevail. So they may be more prone to see developments that give Gore a new advantage in Florida as an effort to steal the election.

What's more, the GOP's reaction to Democratic tactics taps into deep wellsprings of hostility toward President Clinton that have no parallel among Democrats.

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), a member of the House GOP leadership, describes Gore as "a candidate who will not win or lose honorably but will try to do so through the cutthroat tactics that eight years under President Clinton have taught him."

Added a top House GOP aide, who requested anonymity: "A lot of people see this as a continuation of impeachment. They felt the rule of law was thrown aside by Clinton, and all of a sudden they are seeing it again."

Republicans were encouraged Wednesday by the decision of Miami-Dade County to halt its manual recount, which many considered crucial to Gore's ability to catch up to Bush. But they remained fearful that the Gore campaign will find other ways to secure a victory.

"We're seeing a desperate effort on the part of the Democratic ticket to work hand in glove with those who are trying to invent votes by the most inventive, indulgent fantasies available," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.).

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) took the first direct step to inject Congress into the process by proposing the legislation that would force Florida to count all nonfraudulent absentee ballots from overseas military personnel. It is intended to reverse decisions by local officials that threw out some 1,400 absentee ballots because of such technical problems as missing signatures or lack of postmarks.

Salmon wants the House GOP leadership to bring his measure to a vote when Congress returns Dec. 5 for a lame-duck session. But House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), while praising the measure, stopped short of committing to quick action.

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