House leaders are quietly preparing for the unlikely but not unimaginable possibility that Congress will be called on to settle the contested presidential election.
Members say the research effort, looking at the law, history and custom of contested presidential elections, is similar to the one coordinated by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay during the buildup to impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in 1998.
“They’re making sure we have the information we need,” said Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican. “It’s not like they are highlighting [any particular position], but they are being responsible leaders.”
Two weeks ago, Mr. DeLay’s office circulated a memo to members outlining the process for objecting to a state’s slate of electors a possibility for Florida’s decisive but hotly contested electors and reminding members of the process for choosing a president in the House.
Mr. DeLay’s staff, and those of other members and committees, continues to compile information on the process. But they and other congressional leaders are vague about discussing the research effort in the wake of a New York Times article last month that compared the effort to the impeachment drive.
Staff personnel admit the research is under way but deny there is any organized effort.
“Mr. DeLay neither expects nor desires that the presidential contest be settled in the House,” spokesman Jonathan Baron said. “Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the House and the leadership to be prepared.”
The House would become involved in the contest only under a few narrow circumstances. If, for example, Florida is unable to certify its electors by Dec. 18, the day on which the Electoral College formally casts its votes for president, it is possible the House could be called on to pick a president.
The other possibility is that the House and Senate decide to reject the electors from Florida, or any other state, when they meet Jan. 6 to finalize the vote. That might leave both candidates without a majority of the Electoral College and throw the contest to the House.
If the House must pick a president, each state would get one vote. Republicans control enough state delegations, or have enough crossover Democratic votes, to provide at least 28 votes for Mr. Bush, making him the next president.
The Senate would then be called upon to chose a vice president. Since the chamber will likely be split evenly between the parties, there is a possibility that the Senate could name Democratic hopeful Joseph I. Lieberman as vice president. A 50-50 tie in the Senate would be broken by Vice President and presidential candidate Al Gore, giving Mr. Lieberman a theoretical chance of becoming Mr. Bush’s vice president.
Congress is required to accept the results of the Electoral College on Jan. 6, which falls on a Saturday. Both the House and Senate are expected to decide next week whether to accept the results on Jan. 5.
Aides in the House say they are walking a fine line in preparing to pick a president. They don’t want to look like they are fanning the flames of a partisan fight over the presidency, but at the same time do not want to appear cavalier about their responsibilities.
The chief counsel for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, is consulting with the House parliamentarian in preparation for the possibility.
“The speaker understands his constitutional duties and the House will fulfill its constitutional duty,” said Pete Jeffries, Mr. Hastert’s spokesman.
“Our homework is being done to live up to our constitutional responsibility. But in no way, shape or form does the speaker believe we will get to the point where it is the House deciding the presidential contest,” Mr. Jeffries said.
Rep. William M. Thomas, California Republican and chairman of the House Administration Committee, said he is asking the official research arm of Congress for a historical report on how the groundwork should be prepared.
Preparations are also under way in the Senate, but in a less organized way. Staffers in various offices are looking at the rules for contesting a state’s electors and for choosing a vice president.
The Senate Republican Policy Committee is preparing a calendar of events to show how the process would work through Congress, an aide said.
The House and Senate should take the situation with “utmost seriousness,” said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.
“They have to be completely prepared to look at this task from every angle and anticipate every question and have acceptable answers to every situation that might arise,” Mr. Franc said.
“This trumps impeachment as a defining constitutional moment for every member of Congress,” Mr. Franc said. “This is what they have spent their careers preparing for. This is on par with declaring war, in carrying out their constitutional duty.”