Bush's 'white knights' remain ever vigilant

The state's rough-riding House Speaker and its quiet Senate leader haven't ruled out intervention.

All through the longsuffering battle for Florida's electoral votes, Republicans have taken sweet comfort in one thing: They could always call in a cavalcade of white knights to save the day for George W. Bush - a cavalry better known as the Florida state Legislature.

It's a team led by rough-riding House Speaker Tom Feeney and quiet but feisty Senate President John McKay. Together they could convene a special session to appoint a Republican team of electors for Florida, thus handing Mr. Bush the presidency even if Vice President Al Gore wins his long-shot bid for further recounts.

It's fortunate timing for Republicans that Mr. Feeney and Mr. McKay are in charge. It was only in 1996 that Republicans finally broke a 120-year losing streak and regained control of the Legislature.

Not afraid to be bold

By all accounts, the two legislative leaders have the stomach for bold feats of political derring-do - even though they know a Legislature-anointed slate of electors will not sit well with a sizable segment of the public. Such a move would also risk paralyzing the Legislature with partisanship, and would open Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to conflict-of-interest charges by making him sign the bill that puts his brother in the White House.

It may come as some relief to them, then, that Mr. Gore's legal team is not getting many favorable court rulings. The Legislature may not have to act, after all.

But if the Florida Supreme Court, which now has Gore's case, rules in his favor, the Legislative card could still be played. Some would see them as the cavalry, others as bandits. (A weekend Washington Post/ABC News poll found 56 percent of Americans believing the Legislature should stay out of the fray.) But the GOP lawmakers mostly appear poised to act if the occasion arises, whatever the consequences.

"Those Republicans are real firebreathers and firebrands," says Richard Scher, a politics professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Especially those in the House are ready to launch a strike."

This attitude is different, he says, from the days of yore. "The Legislature used to be more of a gentleman's club, but that's all changed."

Indeed, there was a time when Florida's Legislature was more genteel. Until the 1980s, legislators worked in a quaint, white-stone building with sturdy pillars and cheery red-and-white-striped awnings. Outside on the front lawn, Spanish moss swayed lazily in trees. Inside, Democrats held all the power, making for easy one-party harmony.

But then the Republicans got restless. For two decades they fought ever harder to snatch away control of the Legislature.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the new capitol building is a towering 1970s monolith that looks more like a modern fortress than a traditional state capitol.

Feeney was on the tail end of the revolution that vaulted Republicans into power. In 1990, his freshman year as a legislator - when most of his rookie colleagues were more-meekly learning the ropes - he painstakingly put together a fully detailed alternate state budget in counterpoint to then-Gov. Lawton Chiles' plan. His budget never passed, but legislators still speak with awe of this Herculean feat.

Politics, hockey style

But then Feeney was never prone to laying low. In school when he was a hockey player, he was known to body-check classmates to get teachers' attention.

Today he still loves hockey. "He can talk to you about that all day," says House Republican whip Marco Rubio. And he's still just as aggressive. "He was a rep when Republicans were in the distinct minority," Mr. Rubio says. "He's been there through a lot of those front-line battles."

He's also quite conservative. In 1993, the Christian Coalition named him its Legislator of the Year. In 1994, Jeb Bush chose Feeney as his running mate in the race for governor. Some saw Feeney's conservatism as partly to blame for Bush's loss.

But despite the potential embarrassment to his one-time running mate, Feeney has been the most vocal about the Legislature unilaterally certifying Florida's electors. (It may try to pass a resolution to install the electors, thus sparing the governor the embarrassment of having to sign a bill.)

Feeney's counterpart in the Senate, McKay, has been more reticent, as befits his character. A low-key real estate developer from an old-time Florida family, McKay is a quiet, shy man who is "very deliberative in his decisionmaking," says Rubio.

McKay has never said outright that he supports the electors-appointment plan.

But Democrats have no doubt he would step up. "Make no mistake," says House Democratic leader Lois Frankel, "they're both moving forward with everything they need to do to make this happen."

And they do so at their peril, she says, "because it would incense a lot of people in the state."

Of course, the whole discussion could be moot if the state's top court rules against Gore. But Republicans are wary of a court in which all seven justices were appointed by Democratic governors.

And since it's generally accepted that, under the US Constitution, legislatures have the final say in appointing electors, Republicans in Tallahassee will be watching closely in coming days to see which way the court appears to be leaning - and what timetable the court sets for ruling in the case. The Dec. 12 federal deadline for appointing electors looms.

If the situation is unresolved as that deadline approaches, the Legislature may act as Bush's cavalry, despite the risks.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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