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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Voters Rip Legislators on Plan to Intervene

November 30, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Rev. Richard Harris is living, breathing, shouting proof that the Democrats in the Florida Legislature may be facing impossible odds, but they're not calling it quits--at least not yet.

On Wednesday, Harris, in a three-piece suit so sharply pressed you could almost cut your hand on his sleeve, let it rip toward the Republican lawmakers pushing to get involved in Florida's contested presidential election.

"If y'all put your own people ahead of the voters, y'all will be no better than the thieves who break into a bank, no better than those who steal into a house in the middle of the night and rob, no better than a traitor, a betrayer, a disgrace!" boomed the Palm Beach County minister.

Harris is the new face of the Democratic opposition, and his bark-splitting oratory was a preview of the outrage that may be in store for Florida's lawmakers if they inject themselves into the election dispute and name a new set of electoral college delegates loyal to Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Harris and about 70 other "concerned voters" were flown to Tallahassee on a charter flight paid by the Democratic Party to attend a committee meeting and implore state lawmakers to keep out of the election. The Democrats also presented testimony from two legal scholars who said legislative intervention in a presidential election would be unprecedented and illegal.

But that indeed may happen. At least that's what Republicans who control Florida's Legislature made even more clear Wednesday.

"I don't think it's a matter of if, it's a matter of when," said Rep. Johnnie Byrd, of Plant City.

Byrd, co-chairman of the Republican-led committee charged with recommending a course of action, predicted a special legislative session will be called early next week. The 14-member committee plans to vote today and then it will be up to Republicans Tom Feeney, speaker of the House, and John McKay, president of the Senate, to summon Florida lawmakers back to Tallahassee. Lawmakers usually meet only from early March to early May.

Some political observers questioned whether the Republicans would actually intervene. Still, Democrats, outnumbered 77 to 43 in the House and 25 to 15 in the Senate, are dressing for battle over Florida's 25 decisive electoral delegates.

"No, we don't have the votes to stop this, but we need to be here to at least get our voices heard," said Ken Gottlieb, a Democratic state representative from Hollywood, Fla.

When it comes to timing, though, the Republicans are somewhat betwixt and between. Fast approaching is Dec. 12, the deadline for Florida to name its delegates to the electoral college, though that deadline may extend to Dec. 18, when the electoral college actually picks a president.

If Republican lawmakers move too quickly on controversial legislation, they may look rash, some have said. But if they don't act now, and Democrat Al Gore gains votes in the contest phase underway in state court, then Republican lawmakers run the risk of appearing as though they are intervening only to save Bush. Their line of argument so far has been that the election court battles may not be resolved soon and appointing a second set of delegates, presumably for Bush, is the only way to guarantee that Florida's votes get counted. On Tuesday, Republicans presented their own pair of legal experts who said lawmakers were "duty bound" to intervene.

House Republicans have been the ones pushing hardest for a special session, while many of their counterparts in the Senate have appeared more cautious.

"I would rather not be involved in this at all," said Daniel Webster, a Republican senator from Orlando. "And if we have to be, I'd rather wait until Dec. 12 before we do anything. I think other senators feel that way too."

And then there's the sticky issue of exactly what form of legislative action lawmakers would take. Senate attorney Robert Magnuson advised lawmakers that a concurrent resolution by the House and Senate would be best. It could be passed faster than a formal bill--in about three days; would take only a majority vote; and wouldn't require the governor's signature. Jeb Bush, Florida's governor and brother of the presidential candidate, indicated Wednesday that he would rather not get involved, though he added he would sign legislation.

Democrats have countered that a resolution would not carry the force of law and would not overturn the results of the election contest.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Florida Legislature Party Split

Republicans hold the majority in both chambers of Florida's Legislature:

*

SENATE

Republicans: 25

Democrats: 15

*

HOUSE

Republicans: 77

Democrats: 43

Source: State of Florida

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