It could be well into the 110th Congress before a Member from Florida’s 13th district is seated by the House — and the next several weeks could prove to be explosive as the fight plays out in the courts and on Capitol Hill.
The Democratic candidate in the highly contentious race, bank executive Christine Jennings, is in Washington, D.C., this week, meeting with party leaders and drumming up financial support as she continues to dispute the results that appeared to hand auto dealer Vern Buchanan (R) a 369-vote victory.
Although Jennings already has filed suit in a Florida circuit court seeking a revote, she said in an interview Tuesday that she also intends to contest the result with the House Administration Committee — which has oversight over federal elections — by the Dec. 20 deadline. Jennings and her attorneys already have met with Democratic staff members from the committee to discuss the filing process.
“I would not want to pass up on that opportunity,” Jennings said, adding that she still held out hope that the Florida courts might order a revote for the entire 13th district or just in Sarasota County, where Jennings insists malfunctions with the electronic voting machines produced 18,000 undervotes — and changed the outcome of the election.
Filing an official protest with the House Administration Committee will automatically make the Jennings/Buchanan case one of the first indicators of just how partisan the 110th Congress will be, and observers won’t even have to wait until the new year to begin to see the fissures.
Here’s why: The House of Representatives as a whole is responsible for seating its own membership. Buchanan supporters argue that since he holds a certificate from the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission showing that he won the race, he should be installed as the Representative of Florida’s 13th district on Jan. 4, when the 110th Congress convenes.
But in her lawsuit, Jennings has asked the court to order that state officials decertify Buchanan’s victory, and Republicans are concerned that the incoming Democratic House leadership might not seat anyone until the House Administration Committee finishes its review and issues a recommendation on the matter.
It is not unprecedented for neither candidate to be seated by the House until a contested election is resolved. Perhaps the most notable example in recent years is the infamous 1984 race between the late Democratic Rep. Frank McCloskey and Republican Richard McIntyre in Indiana’s 8th district — where it took until the following May to swear in a Member for that seat. McCloskey eventually was seated by a Democratic House.
It’s unclear yet whether Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is planning to fill the seat or leave it vacant until Jennings’ appeals have run their course.
One House leadership aide said Tuesday that “we’re continuing to watch this situation very closely, but of course we have some time ahead of us before we need to really make decisions on this. Obviously the court case that is developing may not be resolved before” Jan. 4.
The Florida dispute could get widespread attention because it involves electronic voting machines, which have come under heavy fire from many good government groups and clean elections advocates.
On Tuesday, Buchanan’s spokeswoman, Sally Tibbets, called on Jennings “to put the best interests of the people ahead of her own political ambitions and do the right thing for the people of Florida’s 13th Congressional district and to concede. And we would also call on the U.S. House of Representatives to put partisan politics aside and seat Vern Buchanan, who has been certified by the state of Florida as the Congressman. That’s what democracy is all about and anything else would totally disrespect the will of the voters of Florida’s 13th Congressional district.”
The eventual winner will replace departing Rep. Katherine Harris (R) — who, ironically, as Florida secretary of state in 2000, was a major player in the disputed presidential election.
But as both sides speculate as to what will happen on Jan. 4, the process for determining the eventual winner after the Jennings’ formal protest is filed with the House also could be controversial.
The House Administration Committee will receive Jennings’ challenge at the tail end of the Republican-controlled 109th Congress and the outgoing majority could immediately begin the investigation or hold hearings on the case.
Traditionally when an election contest is filed, a panel of two majority and one minority committee members is put together to review the case, including reports gathered by both Democratic and Republican committee observers who are sent to districts whenever contests seem likely. That panel makes a recommendation to the full committee on how to proceed, and that recommendation is voted on and, if passed, sent to the floor of the House and treated like any other piece of legislation.
But House Administration spokeswoman Salley Collins said Tuesday that the committee will not make any decisions on how it will proceed with its investigation until Jennings’ paperwork is filed. When asked if the committee would be holding hearings after Congress adjourns, she said it is “not out of the realm of possibility.”
However, as House Administration Democratic Staff Director George Shevlin pointed out, “should she file, no formal action affecting the outcome of the contest could be taken until the next Congress is seated.”
So while the House office lottery pool ended weeks ago, Room 1516 of the Longworth House Office Building — which was set aside for the winner of the Florida contest — is currently vacant, and appears likely to remain that way for a while longer.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.