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Sarasota election raises specter of partisan warfare

Floridians in Congress are bracing for the prospect that Sarasota's contested election could trigger a partisan war in the new House of Representatives.

Republicans worry that in January, the Democratic-controlled House will refuse to seat Vern Buchanan, the official winner.

"If that happens ... forget about any possibility of pretending to be civil,'' said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. "That would be an affront to democracy."

Democrat Christine Jennings has taken the extreme measure of asking the House to intervene as she continues to dispute her slim loss to Buchanan, a Republican.

Florida Democrats caution that the House and courts need to finish their investigations into the election before anyone is sworn in.

"We need to make sure the voters who cast ballots are enfranchised," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat.

Starting the new Congress off with a partisan fight over a single seat may threaten the parties' ability to compromise on other issues.

The now Democratic-controlled House could refuse to seat Buchanan or seat him as a provisional member, even though the state has declared him the winner.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Panhandle Republican, predicted Friday that Democratic leaders, including incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would do just that.

"Nancy Pelosi will not seat Vern Buchanan. I expect that,'' he said. "I expect the Democrats to try to take that seat."

But his Democratic colleague, Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, said neither candidate should be sworn in. "There is an election contest, and nobody should be predetermining the results of that election contest," he said.

The unusually blunt comments from lawmakers came Friday during the last meeting of the Florida delegation before Congress adjourns for the year.

Talk of the contested race and problems with Florida's election system dominated the gathering. Although members repeatedly talked about working together on soaring insurance rates and other issues, their reactions to the race were split predictably along party lines.

"Clearly if the speaker and the House Administration Committee do not seat (Buchanan) it will be a slap in the face to voters in the 13th District,'' said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.

A provision in the U.S. Constitution gives the House the final decision on who sits in its chamber.

Though some Democratic leaders say all options on how to deal with the contested election are on the table, others say they hope the case is resolved in court so they can avoid the chaos it would cause in the House.

Earlier this week, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean called for another election in the race and said Congress should not seat Buchanan until it is sorted out.

Buchanan led Jennings by a few hundred votes on Election Day and in subsequent recounts.

But Jennings is challenging the result because touch screen voting machines in Sarasota County recorded that more than 18,000 people, or 13 percent of all voters, did not vote for either candidate, a rate much higher than in other counties in the district.

Jennings filed suit in Leon County, asking for a new vote.

Next Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge William Gary will consider two different requests to dismiss the case.

Traditionally, the House waits until all pending lawsuits are resolved before it launches its own inquiry, which could take weeks to months.

Since 1993, about 105 such cases have been sent to committee, but only a handful have made it to a full House vote.

Usually the committee dismisses the case, though it could recommend to the full House that it order a new recount or new vote.

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at or (202) 463-0576.