Jan. 6, 2001 — -- A month ago, some thought it might be Al Gore’s last stand. Congress might be forced to choose between competing slates of Florida electors — one supporting Gore, and the other supporting his opponent, George W. Bush.
The choice would determine which man would assume the presidency.
But because Gore dropped his challenge, it appears he will instead preside over a process that will seal his defeat and affirm Bush’s election to the presidency.
In a joint congressional session starting at 1 p.m. today, Congress will tally the results of the Electoral College vote for president. With the only certified slate of Florida electors favoring Bush, the tally is expected to confirm the Bush victory by a vote of 271 to 266, with one abstention.
As president of the Senate, Gore probably will become the third vice president in history to preside over the congressional ceremony confirming his own defeat, following John C. Breckinridge in 1861 and Richard Nixon in 1961.
“I wouldn’t expect any surprises,” says Pam Karlan, a law professor at Stanford University in California. “In part, I wouldn’t expect any surprises because Al Gore has conceded.”
She adds that it is legally unlikely anyone can viably contest Bush’s victory in Florida. She interprets title 3 of the United States Code (see web link to federal election laws) as saying that if only one slate of electors has been submitted from a state, that slate cannot be rejected if it has been properly certified.
“There’s nobody who can claim they weren’t certified, “ she says.
Nevertheless, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., says he and a handful of allies in the Congressional Black Caucus and House of Representatives plan to press a challenge to Bush’s 25 Florida electors, although he needs a senator to join his contest before any action can be debated.
“I don’t, at this point, feel that a senator is going to come forward,” Hastings said on Friday, “though I wish the Florida senators would, and other senators as well.”
An official in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Daschle’s office is not anticipating any Senate challenge to electors. Officials in the office of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said they do not see any senators joining Hastings.
But Hastings says he still will place his objection on the record.
“In defense of democracy, in defense of every American’s right to vote, [and] beyond the court-sanctioned injustices that we experienced in Florida, I feel that Vice President Gore won this election,” Hastings said. “While the rules may prevent the hearing of my challenge, they do not relieve me of my responsibility to the voters in my constituency who stood in line to make their voices heard only to find that their voices had been muted by injustice.”
The counting of electoral votes before the joint houses of Congress is set on Jan. 6 by federal law. Originally, it was seen as one of the last possible deadlines to resolve the dispute between Bush and Gore over who won Florida and, therefore, the presidency.
However, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision made continued recounts of ballots improbable, Gore conceded defeat, and a slate of Bush electors certified by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris became the only certified slate from Florida.
There remained the possibility of electors aligned with Bush voting instead for Gore, but that appears not to have materialized (see web link on electoral votes). In fact, it appears the only surprise in the electoral voting was that a Gore elector from Washington, D.C. who did not cast a ballot, apparently in protest of the district’s lack of voting representation in Congress.
Today, four tellers — one Democrat and one Republican from both the House and the Senate — will announce the state-by-state electoral voting and a clerk will record it, according to Senate Historian Richard Baker.
Gore is expected to do all of the ceremonial speaking at the sealing of his presidential loss, but may opt to turn the proceedings over to the senior senator of the majority party, as Vice President Hubert Humphrey did in 1969 after he lost the presidency to Richard Nixon. With Democrats controlling the Senate until Vice President-elect Dick Cheney is sworn in on Jan. 20, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., would preside if Gore opts out.
After the Florida electoral vote results are announced, Hastings may announce his challenge to those results. The person in the chair, Gore or Byrd, will then ask if there is a senator who wants to join that challenge. If there is not, the challenge will be ruled out of order by the person in the chair.
If both a senator and House member endorse a written challenge to electors, the joint session would be dissolved so both houses could debate the challenge separately. There would be a two-hour time limit on debate, according to Thomas Neale, an Electoral College researcher for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.
Afterwards, the joint session would reconvene, and action could be taken to alter a slate of electors if both houses of Congress agreed to do so.
In 1969, a challenge was raised after an elector for Richard Nixon voted for George Wallace. In that case, Baker says, both houses decided to take no action because the errant electoral vote did not affect Nixon’s victory.
ABCNEWS’ Tom Shine and Elizabeth Wilner contributed to this report.