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Congress officially declares Obama the next president

January 09, 2009|Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — It may seem as if Barack Obama has been president-elect for months. But it was only on Thursday that he officially gained that status, as Congress met in a joint session to tally and certify the vote of the electoral college.

Vice President Dick Cheney presided over the ceremony, which marked the near-end of the George W. Bush era and provided a gratifying moment for Democrats who have raged against the Republican administration ever since the disputed election of 2000.

"All I can think about is how, in such a short period of time, there has been such a dramatic change politically and emotionally," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.). "Never give up on your country, because she will come back and surprise you."

Republicans were distinctly less jubilant, and slower to join in applause as Cheney confirmed the results of the Nov. 4 election: 365 electoral votes for Democrat Obama and running mate Joe Biden, to 173 votes for Republican John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin.

But some conservatives put aside partisanship for the historic moment, which put the country one step closer to having its first African American president.

"This is a joyous occasion, to see an African American elected," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who said he would be celebrating with 200 of his constituents -- most of them Democratic and black -- who had traveled to the capital for the occasion.

For some lawmakers, the ceremony was a reminder of the more divisive occasion that followed the election of 2000 and the contentious recount in Florida, which was ultimately resolved by the Supreme Court in favor of Bush and against Democrat Al Gore, who was then vice president.

When Congress met in 2001 to certify the electoral count of that election, House Democrats -- mostly African Americans -- protested when Florida's votes were announced. They rose one by one to object.

In a poignant irony, Gore was overseeing that session as vice president and ruled the objections out of order, presiding over his own defeat.

Some Democrats could not hide their glee at seeing Cheney lead the session that heralded the end of his tenure.

"It is kind of, 'In between your eyes, Mr. Cheney, after all you did, after all you said to Democrats and to Mr. Obama,' " Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), leader of the 2000 protest, told NPR.

The ratification of Obama's election was as seamless as 2001's was raucous. It began at 1 p.m. sharp in the House chamber.

At the stroke of the hour, a phalanx of congressional pages carried in wooden boxes and envelopes that contained certificates from each state, documenting the vote totals. Cheney and members of the Senate followed.

Politicians sought out soul mates: Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sat with his brother, Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.). Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) sat next to Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.); they both had played roles in the 2000 Florida recount.

Clerks opened the states' certificates one by one -- each with its own silver letter opener, to be given later to members of Congress -- and the results were announced by four tellers.

After the votes were tallied, Cheney announced the results and proclaimed Obama president as of Jan. 20, 2009.

The chamber erupted in a standing ovation.

"We've come full circle," said Wasserman Schultz. "It's amazing to be in Congress with a smooth electoral count and a Democrat in the win column."

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janet.hook@latimes.com

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