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Legislators call session over election

The special session, stoutly opposed by Democrats, will convene Friday and pick electors if court challenges continue.

By LUCY MORGAN and SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


photo
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Senate President John McKay announces the special session Wednesday.
TALLAHASSEE -- The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature will convene in a historic special session Friday to begin the controversial process of approving presidential electors.

But it will move slowly in hopes that events will overtake the need to put a legislative stamp of approval on the electors for George W. Bush, whose names already have been sent to Washington.

Senate President John McKay said he agreed to the session "with considerable hesitation" only because he fears court challenges to the election will taint the existing slate unless those challenges can be resolved before the middle of next week.

Democrats predicted the unusual session will be the most devisive in the 161-year history of the Legislature.

"Taking this step is illegal, it's unconstitutional, and it's just plain wrong," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Rossin.

At 4:50 p.m. Wednesday, McKay signed the joint proclamation calling for the session. House Speaker Tom Feeney signed the proclamation a few minutes later, and about 5:15 p.m. the two legislative leaders jointly announced plans for the session.

House Democratic leader Lois Frankel watched McKay's televised announcement with her colleagues in a Capitol meeting room.

Frankel said she will not instruct House Democrats to boycott the session because she believes they have an obligation to be there.

"But there is no way that we can stop the votes," Frankel said. "I don't think the history books will treat us kindly."

A group of constitutional scholars recruited by the Democrats signed a letter to legislators this week challenging the legality of the session, saying electors already have been chosen.

Rossin says he believes legislative action could trigger "a constitutional crisis, extend litigation and further divide our state and our government."

Legislators will convene at noon Friday as the joint resolution naming electors is referred to committees. The Ethics and Elections Committee will hear testimony for up to eight hours Monday. Once the resolution is approved by the committee, the Rules Committee will meet and schedule the bill for floor action.

McKay said he expects the Legislature, if it's necessary, to give final approval to the resolution on Wednesday -- in time to send the slate of electors to Washington before electors meet Dec. 18.

Using a resolution instead of a bill would leave the action entirely in the hands of the Legislature because resolutions do not require the approval of Gov. Jeb Bush. But legislators say Bush might have to write a letter of transmittal to send these electors to the National Archives as he did last month when the original slate was approved.

"My advice is what I've stated consistently, and that is that the Legislature should act if there's a reason to act, and they shouldn't if there isn't," Jeb Bush said.

After discussing the issue with lawyers for and against calling a session, McKay said he became convinced that Florida risks having its electoral votes not count unless legislators meet and approve the slate.

"Congress has the discretion to reject a slate," McKay said. "So we have no ability to influence Congress. All we can do is make sure there is a slate up there."

Because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision setting aside a Florida Supreme Court ruling that ordered Florida's vote certified on Nov. 26, lawyers for the House and Senate have questioned whether Florida actually has a slate of electors in Washington.

Gov. Jeb Bush sent the slate of electors for George W. Bush to Washington on Nov. 27 after Secretary of State Katherine Harris complied with a Florida Supreme Court ruling and certified Bush the winner by 537 votes over Vice President Al Gore.

McKay said he is convinced Congress could reject the original slate of electors if lawsuits challenging the election are still pending.

If Gore concedes and all lawsuits are settled by early next week, it would not be necessary for legislators to vote on the resolution, McKay said.

"If there isn't finality in the cases, we'll vote," McKay said.

"I find this a very important and solemn duty," Feeney said after signing the proclamation. "We have a duty to protect Florida's participation in the Electoral College."

McKay and Feeney said they have had no recent contact with the Gore or Bush campaign staff and did not consult them about the need for a session.

But Frankel, the feisty leader of House Democrats, suggested George W. Bush was calling the shots. She said the only thing missing from the proclamation was "a postmark from Austin."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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