Bush declines Gore vote deal

By DAN BALZ

The Washington Post

Vice President Al Gore issued a dramatic offer to Texas Gov. George W. Bush Wednesday night, proposing that the two agree to accept the results of manual recounts in selected Florida counties or even all 67 counties in the state. But Bush rejected the offer, saying the disputed presidential election should be decided on the basis of the law, “not the result of deals.”

Gore pledged to forgo any further legal challenges in Florida and discourage other lawsuits brought by his allies in the state if Bush accepted his proposal. Bush argued that manual recounts are “arbitrary and chaotic” and that expanding them from a few counties to the entire state would only result in “compounding the error.”

As the two candidates dueled before the cameras, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris announced that she had rejected requests from four counties to submit amended results based on any additional hand counting of ballots or other reasons. She said she had concluded there were no extraordinary circumstances that justified the counties’ requests for additional time.

Harris said that the state Elections Canvassing Committee had certified the presidential election in Florida based on the tabulations submitted as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, which showed Bush ahead by 300 votes. She added that she will issue a final certification on Saturday after the last of the overseas absentee ballots, which must be counted by midnight Friday, are totaled. But Gore chairman William Daley said the Democrats would go to court today to try to have her decision overruled.

The rapidly unfolding late-night drama began when Gore stepped before the cameras a few hours after the Florida Supreme Court had rejected Harris’ request to stop the hand counting to offer what he said was a way to bring closure to the election dispute.

With his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman at his side, Gore called for a meeting with Bush before the election results are finally certified, “not to negotiate but to improve the tone of our dialogue.” Gore said he is prepared to join with his rival now and once the election has been decided to help tamp the escalating rhetorical warfare.

“We should both call on all our supporters to close ranks as Americans and unite the country behind the winner as soon as this process is completed,” Gore said, speaking from the foyer at the vice presidential residence.

He said if Bush agreed to the terms of his offer, the hand-counting process could be completed “within seven days of the time it starts” and therefore would set a firm timetable for bringing the matter to a close. Gore specifically cited the need for hand counting in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

Bush’s advisers immediately plunged into a round of meetings to prepare a response and hustled to bring the GOP candidate back to Austin from his ranch in central Texas. “The way to conclude the election in a fair and accurate and final way is for the state of Florida to count the remaining overseas ballots, add them to the certified vote, and announce the results, as required by Florida law,” he said.

But Bush joined Gore in pledging to unite the country once the race had been decided. “We have a responsibility to conduct ourselves with dignity and honor,” he said. “We have a responsibility to make sure that those who speak for us do not poison our politics. And we have a responsibility to respect the law and not seek to undermine it when we do not like its outcome.”

If Harris’ decision to deny the counties the opportunity to amend their results was a blow to Gore, the earlier action by Florida’s Supreme Court rejecting her request to halt hand-counting of ballots in selected counties represented a clear setback to the Bush campaign, which had joined the request by the secretary of state. The action marked the second time this week that the courts have blocked efforts by the Republicans to have the manual recounts declared invalid.

The state court action freed Broward and Palm Beach counties to move ahead with the laborious process of counting about 1 million ballots by hand. Democrats hope that those recounts will provide Gore with enough additional votes to overcome Bush’s 300-vote lead and tip the state and its 25 electoral votes to the vice president.

But the state court action left open the question of whether Harris may yet be required to include updated tabulations from the counties conducting manual recounts before issuing a final certification of Florida’s election results.

Despite the setback in state court, Bush advisers also took solace from an announcement by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which said that it will accept the appeal by the Bush campaign and others seeking a reversal of a lower court decision that allowed the hand-counting to continue. A federal district judge in Florida ruled Monday that there is no federal jurisdiction over the state election law dispute.

The full 12-member federal appeals court plans to hear the appeal, but as of Wednesday had not set a time for that hearing.

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