Agency denies Bush team access to transition funds and facilities

Los Angeles Times and The New York Times

WASHINGTON — George W. Bush’s team tried relentlessly Monday to act like an incoming administration. The Clinton administration, which still holds the keys to the White House, tried even harder to ignore it.

The result was a collision of images that seemed strange, even by this election’s standards.

It started early Monday, when the Bush team asked for access to the taxpayer-funded transition offices that are to be used by the president-elect. The General Services Administration refused, with President Clinton’s aides declaring that they would not release $5.3 million in funds or turn over the keys to a transition office "until a final winner" emerges in the presidential race.

Within hours, Dick Cheney, Bush’s running mate and head of his transition team, responded that the Bush team would open its own, privately funded transition office in Washington, a sort of unsanctioned government-in-waiting just blocks from the White House.

He said the Bush team would accept "both direct and in-kind contributions from individuals," up to a maximum of $5,000 each, to pay for the operation in the absence of government funds.

"You know, these are unprecedented circumstances," Cheney said. "There is no experience that I’ve had … like this.

"I worked for Jerry Ford when we took over the White House as Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. That was a strange transition."

Standing in front of 14 American flags during a news briefing, Cheney announced that the Bush transition, which he is heading, first will identify potential administration appointees and help their picks slog through the dozens of forms required by the FBI for security clearances.

Speaking at the beginning of a Cabinet meeting Monday afternoon, Clinton said he was not involved in the decision by the GSA to deny the Bush team access to the government’s official transition office.

If it were up to him, the president said, he would "offer transition assistance to both of them."

Government officials said Monday night that the Justice Department was examining whether the law could be interpreted to fit the president’s wish. However, that raised the specter of dueling transition offices, each simultaneously deciding on a White House staff and Cabinet, receiving intelligence briefings and drafting a first-year budget.

In denying the Bush camp both funds and office space, the GSA cited the 1963 Presidential Transition Act, which stipulates that the winner of an election must be clear before the government can spend taxpayer money in aiding the transition.

Cheney said the team was "disappointed" by the decision.

When the White House initially sought legal advice from the Justice Department on handling the transition, it was told that until a final determination of the president-elect was made, no money should be disbursed and the FBI should not conduct background checks on nominees for political posts.

The Justice Department continues to research the matter, officials there said.

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