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Do we really want lawmakers picking president?

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 23, 2000


The fight for the presidency may be entering its most dangerous phase yet.

First came the campaign. Then came the court battles, which escalated Wednesday. Now we are on the brink of dragging in the Florida Legislature and Congress.

Shortly after the Florida Supreme Court unanimously established a clear path to end the election, former Secretary of State James Baker raised the prospect that Republicans will turn to the GOP-controlled Legislature for help.

"Two weeks after the election, that court has changed the rules and invented a new system for counting the election results," said Baker, who is monitoring the Florida election for Bush. "One should not be surprised if the Florida Legislature seeks to affirm the original rules."

Bush did not specifically mention that option Wednesday, and it wasn't entirely clear how the Legislature will respond.

In one television interview, Sen. Dan Webster of Orlando lobbied for a special session where legislators would give back to Secretary of State Katherine Harris the discretion to firmly enforce the deadlines she used to reject the hand recounts.

But Senate President John McKay sounded more cautious, allowing only that his staff is studying the issue.

Regardless of how angry the Republicans are with the Florida Supreme Court, they may think twice about involving the Legislature. The court of public opinion may respond just as harshly to that move as the court did in rejecting Harris' reasons for rejecting the hand count.

The state Supreme Court is not a political court, despite the national media's fixation on the fact that six justices are Democrats and one is a registered independent. And it is not the U.S. Supreme Court, where 5-4 opinions divided along ideological lines are the norm.

As it demonstrated Tuesday night, the court is not afraid to buck public sentiment, as it has in its death penalty opinions, or to stare down saber-rattling politicians, as it has with governors and legislators from both political parties over the years.

The courts are the best hope for ending the efforts of partisans on both sides to mount doomsday defenses that would cripple the next president.

In Tallahassee, Republican legislators have been making noises about choosing Florida's 25 electors themselves. Federal statutes require states to select their electors for the Electoral College by Dec. 12. The electors then meet in state capitals across the country on Dec. 18 to select a president.

"Somewhere the Legislature may have to step in and select those electors," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Do Floridians want the partisan Legislature to substitute its judgment for theirs?

In Washington, some Republican members of Congress are thinking along similar lines as they escalate their rhetoric that the Florida Supreme Court has stolen the election from Bush.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas recently circulated a memo outlining how Congress could throw out Florida's electors when it convenes Jan. 6 to count the electoral votes. At least one House member and one senator would have to object in writing. Then a majority of both the House and Senate could vote to reject Florida's electoral votes.

The thinking is that the Republican-controlled House could vote to throw out Florida's electors if Gore winds up carrying the state. In the Senate, where Republicans would hold a one-vote margin at most, it could be tougher.

Do Americans want a partisan Congress to decide who moves into the White House?

Even among the experts, there is no consensus on what would happen if Florida's 25 electoral votes are discounted. Some think Gore still could be awarded the presidency, because he leads Bush with 267 electoral votes. Others think the winner must have a majority of the entire Electoral College, which is 270 votes.

"My personal opinion is that 270 is probably still operative, but I'll concede I don't really know," said Michael White, legal affairs director for the Federal Register, which oversees the electoral process.

Then there are loose cannons running around like Bob Beckel. He is a Democratic strategist who is researching how some electors could be persuaded to ignore the will of the voters of their state and change their votes.

Whoever becomes president will enter the White House without a mandate or much hope of pursuing their most ambitious campaign proposals. Congress is narrowly divided. So is the country. So is Florida.

To taint this election further with more political maneuvering would only serve to continue to weaken the next president. The courts are the last point where reason and objectivity can overcome emotion and partisanship.

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