TALLAHASSEE — Fearing a major victory for Gov. Charlie Crist, Florida Republican leaders are prepared to take drastic action — even blocking a historic vote on a constitutional amendment banning offshore oil drilling.
Legislators are expected to reluctantly convene a special session next week called by the governor, then swiftly reject a plan that would attract his supporters to the polls.
A survey of House Republicans shows the party's caucus is so deeply divided over the amendment that leaders fear it would be difficult for Republicans to stand up to Crist and vote against bringing the issue to the voters.
At least 14 Republicans and one Democrat who supported legislation in 2009 to open Florida waters to oil drilling now support asking voters to decide on a ban, according to a survey of legislators by the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald.
Combined with 43 Democrats who are expected to support the constitutional amendment, there are at least 58 solid votes in support. Another eight Republicans, most of them in coastal districts, declined to state a position and 23 Republicans could not be reached.
''If we vote on it, I believe it will pass,'' said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican and majority whip, who last year supported a plan to open Florida waters from three to 10 miles off shore to oil and gas drilling.
He said that if he were voting on the constitutional ban, he would be ''leaning yes,'' but instead is angered that the governor called the session ''for selfish reasons.''
Legislators need 72 votes in the House and 24 votes in the Senate to put the amendment on the November ballot, but rather than take up the governor's proposal and soundly defeat it, the House is expected to convene and adjourn without taking a vote.
Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo, wants them to at least vote on her bill to chastise Crist for wasting taxpayer money by calling for what she considers an unneeded session.
Rep. John Tobia, R-Satellite Beach, echoed the comments of many Republicans about Crist's proposal, calling it ''nothing more than a political stunt.''
Even legislators who support the ban are critical of Crist for failing to use the session to address more immediate needs, such as passing legislation to give economic relief to businesses and families in northwest Florida.
Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said that while she supports putting the amendment on the ballot ''you have to question the governor's motives.''
Rep. Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami, said that while he would like to vote to put the amendment on the ballot, taxpayer money could have been better spent to ''address all those issues while we are up there.''
Tuesday's no-vote would mark a new low in the steadily deteriorating relationship between the former Republican governor and GOP lawmakers.
Since Crist abandoned the Republican Party in April and announced he is running for U.S. Senate as a non-party candidate against former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Democrats Kendrick Meek and Jeff Greene, he has hinted he would call a special session in time to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot by the Aug. 4 deadline.
But the sharply partisan House leadership stonewalled the governor, even refusing to answer his phone calls. Meanwhile, Senate leaders suggested they were open to a special session, especially one that would also provide economic relief to regions crippled by the oil disaster.
Crist instead scheduled the four-day session to deal with the constitutional amendment alone, saying there was no urgency to the economic issues.
''For them to put their animosity toward me above the will and what's right for the people of this state would be stunningly shortsighted,'' Crist told the Times/Herald.
Democrats also believe Republicans are out to punish Crist and prevent him from using the issue to drive supporters to the polls. ''It's a bunch of kids that want to take their ball and go home,'' said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando.
Some legislators oppose using the Constitution to impose a ban, while others say it is wrong to preclude future generations — especially since there are the known deep natural gas reserves along Florida's Gulf Coast.
''Safe offshore oil drilling ought not to be prohibited in our Constitution,'' said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who is also chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
He acknowledged that the party has conducted a poll on the issue but the decision to not take a vote on the proposed amendment was not intended to offset popular support for a ban, but to give voters more time to determine the causes and consequences of the oil spill before amending the Constitution.
''Why rush into approving a constitutional amendment when we already have a statute that bans oil drilling,'' he said.
Other lawmakers lament the bitterness the issue has spawned.
''There's not going to be any winners out of this special session,'' warned Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville. ''We'll all be looked upon as wasting the taxpayers' money and time because we don't have our act together.''
Rep. Clay Ford, a Gulf Breeze Republican agreed. By not allowing voters a voice on the oil ban, ''It may intensify the anti-incumbent feeling already out there,'' he said. ''It's sort of a calculated risk. I don't think it's worth taking that risk. Most of us are up for re-election.''
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]