By DAVID ROYSE
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A committee of the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature called today for lawmakers to meet in special session "as soon as practicable" to consider appointment of electors in the state’s contested presidential election.
The vote came over the objections of Democrats, who said there should be no interference in the election controversy.
Florida’s House speaker and Senate president are expected to follow the recommendation to convene the state’s 160 lawmakers — 102 of them Republicans — in an action that Democrats have criticized as a George W. Bush campaign backup plan.
Even before the committee acted, Democrat Al Gore’s lawyers filed papers in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the right of the Legislature to intervene.
No exact date was set for the session. Republicans say the U.S. Constitution allows them to step in because the legal wrangling over who won Florida could drag past the Dec. 12 deadline for naming voters to the Electoral College, putting in jeopardy the state’s participation.
The Senate’s leading Democrat opened the special committee’s deliberations with an impassioned plea against what was widely seen as a foregone conclusion.
"What the hell is going on here? You know and I know it, this is not the right thing to do," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Rossin.
But the new House speaker, Rep. Tom Feeney, pressed forward.
"I don’t believe there’s an option at this point and I’m prepared to go," said Feeney, who along with the Senate president has the power to call a special session. "I’m standing on the playing field ready to put my helmet on."
Gore said in advance, "I can’t believe that the people of Florida want to see the expression of their will taken away by politicians. I think you’d see quite a negative response to it."
An ABC News-Washington Post poll released earlier this week found that by a 2-1 margin, Americans disapproved of Florida’s Legislature getting involved in determining the winner.
Democrats contend it’s nothing more than a Bush campaign backup plan to assure his electoral victory, even if Gore’s legal challenges make him the court-declared winner of the election.
Sen. John McKay, president of the Senate, has said it was a "reasonable conclusion" that the Legislature would name its own slate of electors. But he was moving cautiously.
"This is too important an issue to be taken lightly," he said. "We’re going to give it the attention and the respect that it deserves.
McKay said he had not decided for sure whether a session was needed, and was waiting for a report from the committee looking into the issue. "If I didn’t wait for the report that would be hypocritical," he said.
If the state’s lawmakers do name a slate of 25 electors pledged to Bush, it could put Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the position of signing off on a measure that could effectively make his brother the president.
However, it was not clear whether the Legislature would have to pass a law appointing electors, or could do so via a concurrent resolution that would not require a gubernatorial signature. Roger Magnuson, majority council to the state senate, said at a hearing Wednesday that he thought a concurrent resolution would be the way to go.
Jeb Bush said it would be "an act of courage" for lawmakers to go into special session and that he would sign legislation naming a separate slate of electors "if it was the appropriate thing to do."
"I admire them for at least, on a contingency basis, accepting that responsibility and duty," Bush said outside a Cabinet meeting. "If there is uncertainty, the Legislature has clear delegated authority from the U.S. Constitution to seek the electors."
But Bush added that he would bow to the U.S. Supreme Court if it ultimately decided Gore won the election. "If the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees with the Florida Legislature, I think the United States Supreme Court trumps the Legislature," the governor said.
A House Democratic leader said the ultimate decision on whether the Legislature weighs in could end up coming from outside the Capitol.
"The shots are going to be called by the Bush campaign. If the Bush campaign wants it to go, it’ll go," Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach said.
McKay said he has relied on the opinions of legal scholars who say the Legislature has the power under the Constitution to name electors if there is a chance the state’s voice will note be heard in the Electoral College.
"What I’ve heard so far is if all the contests are not concluded by the 12th, the Legislature has a responsibility to create a safety net," McKay said. "If that’s our responsibility, that’s our responsibility."
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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