Bitter Debate Mars Election Approval in Congress

A Democratic effort to highlight Ohio’s Election Day voting troubles did not upend President Bush’s official re-election, but did spark bitter squabbling that started the new Congress on a sharply partisan tone.

In a quadrennial joint session brimming with tradition, the House and Senate on Thursday affirmed Bush’s Nov. 2 victory over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. With Vice President Dick Cheney presiding, lawmakers tallied the electoral votes and gave Bush a 286-251 victory – plus a single vote cast by a “faithless” Minnesota elector for Kerry’s running mate, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.

But before the final verdict was in, some Democrats angry over the Ohio irregularities forced a challenge to the vote count for just the second time since the 19th century – a protest that prompted strong language from both sides.

“It is a crime against the dignity of American democracy,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said of the Democratic challenge, adding that it was guided by “spite, obstructionism and conspiracy theories.”

Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, lauded Kerry’s Nov. 3 concession and his decision not to join Thursday’s challenge. “Apparently, such admirable qualities do not apply to certain extreme elements of Senator Kerry’s own party,” she said.

For their part, Democrats tried to equate their effort with American troops fighting in the Middle East.

“We have people dying in Iraq every day to bring democracy to those people. We need to have the best system we can have,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who kept the formal complaint alive by providing the senator’s signature that House proponents needed.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., was among several lawmakers who mentioned allegations of electoral wrongdoing by Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who was co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in the state. He has denied those accusations.

Waters, among several members of the Congressional Black Caucus who pressed the challenge, said Blackwell is, “I’m ashamed to say, an African-American man.”

The battling came on just the third day of the 109th Congress, in which Bush seems likely to need some Democratic support to push through a Social Security overhaul and perhaps appoint a new Supreme Court justice.

About 200 activists, including 50 who traveled by bus from Ohio, stood outside in a chilly rain, waving signs in protest of the election results.

“I know people think we’re conspiracy theorists,” said Marty Kuhn of Columbus. “We think the Republicans are conspiracy theorists because they have all these different reasons for why the exit poll data was so wrong.”

There was never a chance that the uproar over Ohio votes would cause Congress to reverse Bush’s triumph. Bush won Ohio by 118,000 votes and carried the national contest by 3.3 million votes, and even Democrats had little appetite to challenge the voters’ verdict.

Democrats said their goal was to publicize the voting problems, not reverse the voting results. To achieve that, during the state-by-state examination of voting documents – in alphabetical order – Boxer and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, protested when Ohio’s papers were drawn from the ceremonial mahogany box.

Worried the challenge might cast Democrats as whiners, many from the party – including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. – played minor roles in the showdown, or none at all.

Underscoring that, after the challenge forced the House and Senate to convene separately to consider the Ohio problems, the House rejected the protest by 267-31. The Senate vote was 74-1, with Boxer the only vote in support.

Senate debate took just over an hour, while the House – including an unusually long roll call to accommodate traveling lawmakers – used almost three more.

When they reconvened together in the House chamber, it took less than 20 minutes to finish the tabulation of state electoral votes.

“This announcement shall be a sufficient declaration of the persons elected president and vice president of the United States for the term beginning Jan. 20, 2005,” Vice President Dick Cheney, who presided over the session, read without emotion when the final votes were tabulated.

The last time the two chambers were forced to interrupt their joint vote-counting session and meet separately was in January 1969, when a “faithless” North Carolina elector designated for Richard Nixon voted instead for independent George Wallace. Both chambers agreed to allow the vote for Wallace.

The previous challenge requiring separate House and Senate meetings was in 1877 during the disputed contest that Rutherford Hayes eventually won over Samuel Tilden.