WASHINGTON — Democratic members of Congress from Florida and Michigan met Wednesday evening in search for a solution to the thorny issue of what to do about both states' delegates to this summer's Democratic convention as it becomes increasingly clear that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton are likely to gain enough delegates to win their party's nomination.
Meanwhile, Florida Democratic Party officials said they would begin discussing with both candidates' campaigns the possibility of scheduling a new vote that would pick delegates that could prove to be the tie-breakers in the closely fought nominating battle.
The urgency of finding a solution to the issue — the result of a decision last yearl by the Democratic National Committee to strip both states of their convention delegates because they scheduled their primaries too early in the year — grew after Clinton's candidacy received a much-needed boost from primary victories Tuesday in Texas and Ohio. Before Tuesday, Obama had won 11 straight delegate contests.
More than a dozen states are scheduled to vote over the next three months, but neither candidate is within reach of the 2,025 delegates needed to sew up the nomination.
"We're looking at an election going all the way to Puerto Rico, and the pressure is going to come for the Florida and Michigan people to cut a deal,'' said U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., a Clinton supporter. Clinton opened the possibility Wednesday of new votes in Florida and Michigan after weeks in which she said such a solution would disenfranchise would disenfranchise voters and that the votes from the January primaries should be counted.
"I don't think a Democrat can turn his or her back on Florida, so yes, I think Michigan and Florida should count. How we get to them counting is really up to the people and the leadership of those two states,'' she said on NBC's Today show. Obama didn't express a preference in an interview following Clinton.
"We have played by whatever the rules DNC put forward and we will continue to play by those rules, and whatever the rules are, we think we'll do well,'' he said. Clinton's position reflected a retreat from her hardline stance that the Florida and Michigan primaries should count toward her delegate total, even though the candidates ceased campaigning in the states and Obama wasn't on the Michigan ballot. Two of Clinton's top surrogates, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, floated the prospect of re-votes before the results came in Tuesday.
"The pressure started to build at 1 a.m. last night, the second they called Texas for Clinton, and it's going to be relentless,'' said Florida House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, who has proposed a mail-in vote. "Now it's up to the party leadership to figure out how to make sure Florida's voice is heard and its delegates counted, and that could mean a new process.'' Adding to the pressure, Republican John McCain will make his Florida debut as the presumptive nominee Thursday, getting a head start in the nation's largest battleground state. At his side in West Palm Beach: the popular Gov. Charlie Crist, whose endorsement helped him win the primary and has vowed to stump on his behalf until November. For his part, Crist issued a statement Wednesday with Michigan's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, calling for both states' delegates to be seated at the party convention in August.
Crist said it was "reprehensible'' to silence the 5.1 million voters from both states. He did not offer an alternative but said he spoke with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and agreed that "the only way to consider the possibility of that is to have the Democratic National Committee pay'' for a new election. "They've got to honor the people in Florida,'' Nelson said. "And I think they realize that now, that they've got to, if they want to win the election in November.'' Pointing to the state's grim economic outlook, state legislative leaders, all Republicans, ruled out paying for another primary. The Jan. 29 vote cost about $18 million.
"There is no money this year,'' said House Speaker Marco Rubio, the West Miami Republican who spearheaded the idea of moving up the primary date to increase the state's clout.
The DNC last summer offered to cover some of the cost of a small, party-run vote in place of the state-run primary, but Florida party leaders refused. In a statement Wednesday, DNC Chairman Howard Dean listed two options: schedule a re-vote or appeal to a party committee convening this summer to recognize the Jan. 29 vote.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman laid down her own ground rules in a statement that said discussions to resolve the standoff are continuing. She said any plan must cover the costs, earn support from both candidates and guarantee the participation of all Democrats, including including military members overseas. "It is very possible that no satisfactory alternative plan will emerge, in which case Florida Democrats will remain committed to seating the delegates allocated by the Jan. 29th primary,'' she said. U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat, said he opposed a re-vote, noting that more than 1.7 million Florida Democrats voted Jan. 29.
"Everyone was on the ballot in Florida,'' said Meek, a Clinton advisor. "It's the purest vote that has been cast by far. To start saying that all of that record-breaking early voting, record-breaking primary vote, that we're going to re-do it?'' But Obama supporters noted that Clinton had agreed to the national party's rules that kept Florida's vote from counting.
Other Democratic leaders said that with no sign that either candidate would bow out before the convention, doing nothing is not an option. "People were hoping it would resolve itself, but that clearly is not going to occur,'' said Broward Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar. "There is a window now for the national state parties to divine a viable solution."
A bonus if Florida holds another Democratic vote between May 1 and June 10: National party rules award 30 percent extra delegates to states that hold out to the end of the primary season. .