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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

GOP in Legislature Seeks Way to Give Bush Electoral Votes

Politics: Florida's Republican leaders, outraged by state Supreme Court ruling, weigh naming a rival set of electors--even if Gore is ahead in the tally.

November 23, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled state Legislature are aggressively exploring options to award Florida's 25 electoral votes to George W. Bush, even if Al Gore takes the lead after the manual recounts authorized by Tuesday night's state Supreme Court decision.

Incensed by the ruling, Republicans are considering a special legislative session--probably as soon as next week--to seat a set of electoral college members who favor Bush, regardless of the vote's outcome.

But the prospect of Gore gaining the lead remained very cloudy Wednesday as the vice president lost ground on one vote-counting front and treaded water on another. With the Miami-Dade County canvassing board voting to terminate its recount, and a Palm Beach County judge only modestly challenging the stringent standards used there for judging disputed ballots, Gore's chances of accumulating enough votes to overcome Bush's official 930-vote lead appeared to deteriorate.

What did become clear Wednesday was that even if Gore can acquire the votes he needs, key GOP leaders in the Legislature are preparing for unprecedented steps to tilt the state's electoral votes to Bush anyway.

Legal Analysis Is Prepared

The incoming Republican speaker of the House, Rep. Tom Feeney, has readied a two-page legal analysis arguing that the Legislature could appoint its own slate of electors if it appears that the voting dispute will not be resolved by Dec. 12--the federal cutoff date for states to appoint their representatives to the electoral college.

"If there are no electors, the Legislature would have to step in and choose" some, state House Majority Leader Mike Fasano (R-Tampa) said.

Late Wednesday, Feeney said that he had spoken with a "prominent law professor"--whom he would not name--to map out options. And he condemned the state Supreme Court's decision, insisting that the Legislature may have to step in "to help resolve the constitutional crisis . . . the court has created."

Feeney, who was Gov. Jeb Bush's running mate in his unsuccessful 1994 gubernatorial race, said his office had received more than 200,000 e-mails urging the Legislature to step in.

Since Republicans hold a 77-43 majority in the House, and a 25-15 advantage in the Senate, they presumably could pass legislation to install their preferred electors--although Senate leaders have been much more guarded in their comments than their House counterparts.

But any such move by legislative Republicans if Gore wins the state would escalate the confrontation in several respects. Since Gore, in that circumstance, presumably would send his own Florida representatives to Washington, Congress would be forced to choose between competing slates of electors.

But even the prospect of Republican elected officials moving to overturn a possible Gore victory--in a state where George W. Bush's brother sits in the governor's mansion--undoubtedly would provoke a firestorm of public controversy.

"I do not believe that it is going to be acceptable to this country for the Florida Legislature to determine the next president of the United States," said House Minority Leader Lois Frankel (D-West Palm Beach). "Certainly the fact that [Bush's brother] is the governor makes it potentially more disastrous for Republicans."

If state legislative Republicans move to effectively overturn the court's decision, the result could be "a constitutional crisis in Florida" and perhaps the nation, predicted Heather Gerken, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in election law. "Probably not since Brown vs. Board of Education [the decision outlawing segregated schools in 1954] has there been such a risk of a decision by the judiciary being disregarded," she said.

But one senior Bush legal advisor scoffed at that notion, insisting that a legislative intervention would be no more illegitimate than the sweeping state court ruling. "Do you mean that if you go to the elected representatives of the state it would be more tainted than the decision by the judges of the Democrats?" he asked. Six of the seven Florida Supreme Court justices are Democrats.

In his combative statement denouncing the court decision Tuesday night, Bush advisor James A. Baker III, a former secretary of State, repeatedly invited the Legislature to intervene. On Wednesday, several GOP leaders signaled that they were ready to accept his offer.

But they spent more time denouncing the state Supreme Court decision--which mandated that Secretary of State Katherine Harris include the results of manual recounts in the state's final tally--than outlining their own plans.

In private, however, legal strategists have begun developing a detailed game-plan strategy for reversing the result if the recounts give Gore the lead--and the 25 electoral votes from the state he would need to become president.

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