Partisan battle boils over Fla. House seat

Times Staff Writer

Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi’s pledge to bring bipartisan peace to that most partisan of institutions -- the House of Representatives -- could be put to a test early in the new Congress by an election dispute in Florida.

When the Democratic-controlled Congress convenes in January, Pelosi may have to decide whether to seek to deny the certified GOP winner of a Florida House seat from taking office.

Republican Vern Buchanan was declared the winner by 369 votes. Democrat Christine Jennings has gone to court seeking a new vote, asserting that the electronic voting machines malfunctioned. A court hearing is set for Tuesday. And Jennings plans to file papers with the House by Wednesday’s deadline contesting the election results and seeking to block Buchanan from taking office next month.


Pelosi is monitoring the court fight but hasn’t decided on a course of action, aides say.

Republicans have made clear they would view a Pelosi embrace of Jennings’ challenge as a call to arms.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said Friday that if Democrats attempted to prevent Buchanan from taking the seat, it would be a “poisoning of the well by depth charge.”

“This is a first major test for Nancy Pelosi,” added Ed Patru, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference. “Will she side with the voters of the 13th District? ... Or will she make a blatant partisan power grab?”

Any effort to prevent Buchanan from taking office would have to be approved by the full House.

If Pelosi decides to pursue that route, her new majority presumably would vote for it. But a source close to the Democratic leadership, who requested anonymity when discussing party strategy, said Pelosi probably would let Buchanan take office while ordering an investigation by the House Administration Committee into whether a new election was warranted.

Pelosi is being pressed by Democratic activists to take a tougher stance and block Buchanan from being sworn in.


Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told Florida’s Bay News 9 this month: “You cannot seat someone if you don’t have an election that’s valid.”

The liberal organization delivered a petition to Capitol Hill on Friday urging Congress to order a new election.

Historically, denying certified winners their seats can be the political equivalent of a bare-knuckles brawl on Capitol Hill. In 1984, partisan tensions ran high in a dispute over what came to be known as Indiana’s “Bloody 8th” district.

In that race, Republican Richard McIntyre had been declared the winner by 34 votes one day after the election and by 418 votes after a state-ordered recount. But the Democratic-controlled House refused to seat him. For a time, both McIntyre and Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey drew congressional pay, but neither was officially seated.

Six months later, after another recount, McCloskey was declared the victor by four votes. Republicans cried foul and stormed out of the chamber when McCloskey was seated. Then-Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), now a senator, said at the time, “This wound will not heal without a terrible price and a scar that will not disappear for many years.”

Indeed, the ill will sparked by the dispute helped empower GOP insurgents in the House who were prodding their leaders to more aggressively battle the then-entrenched Democratic majority on a range of issues.


The current dispute involves the seat that Republican Katherine Harris gave up to make a Senate run, which was unsuccessful. In 2000, Harris was Florida’s secretary of state and oversaw the state’s bitterly contested recount of presidential ballots. In that role, she ultimately certified that George W. Bush narrowly carried the state and, with it, won the White House.

This year’s flap does not focus on hanging chads, but on voting machines.

Jennings has contended that 17,811 ballots cast in Sarasota County -- almost 1 in 5 ballots -- made no choice in the House race, a significantly higher rate than in other areas in the district. Jennings, who carried Sarasota County, 53% to 47%, alleges that an electronic foul-up is the most logical explanation for the large number of blank votes.

Buchanan’s camp depicts Jennings as a sore loser.

“The votes have been recounted twice -- confirming Vern Buchanan won the election,” said his spokeswoman, Sally Tibbetts. “It is time for Christine Jennings to ... concede this election.”

But Jennings spokeswoman Kathy Vermazen said the fight was an important national test of the reliability of electronic voting machines. “This case, for better or for worse, provides probably the best chance we have to really take a look at these machines,” she said.

In part because of the contested election, efforts are underway in Congress to require a paper trail for computer voting.

The dispute has created an awkward moment: Both candidates showed up for a freshman orientation on Capitol Hill.