WASHINGTON — Just as Democrats headed toward the final votes of the long primary season with hopes of wrapping up the nomination, a party panel Saturday triggered what could be a bitter fight lasting through the summer and on to the Democratic National Convention.
The Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee voted to restore delegate votes to Florida and Michigan, two states that had been stripped of all their votes for holding primaries too early in violation of party rules.
The panel essentially reduced the two states' votes by half, voting to seat all the delegates from both states, then give each a half vote.
But it also reallocated the delegates from Michigan, trying to remedy what members called a "flawed" primary where Clinton triumphed easily but Obama was not on the ballot.
Following a formula that tried to divine the wishes of voters by using exit polls as well as write in votes for Obama that weren't counted at the time, the panel took four delegates away from Clinton, and gave them plus all of the state's uncommitted delegates to Obama.
The result had little impact on the nomination battle, giving Clinton a small net gain on Obama but failing to dent his triple digit lead in delegates.
But it outraged Clinton supporters, many of whom stormed out of the meeting. And it prompted Clinton herself to tell her point man on the panel, Harold Ickes, that she reserved the right to take a challenge to the decision to the party's credentials committee later this summer and perhaps to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.
"I am astonished that we have the gall and the chutzpah to substitute our judgment for 600,000 voters," Ickes said, referring to the Michigan vote.
"Hijacking four delegates...is not a good way to start down the path of party unity...Mrs. Clinton has instructed me to reserve her right to take this to the credentials committee."
Hecklers interrupted the committee several times, booing statements supporting Obama and chanting, "Denver, Denver, Denver," a sign they want to take the fight to the convention.
Angry Clinton supporters poured out of the meeting into the hallways, denouncing the party or Obama.
"The Democrats are throwing the election away. For what? An inadequate black male," shouted a woman who identified herself as Harriet Christian of New York.
"This is outrageous to have four delegates just taken away," said Joan Lipkin of St. Louis, wiping tears away. "I don't feel like we have any voice in this party."
"The committee sold out to Obama," Lynn Forester de Rothschild of New York told an Obama supporter. "Obama gamed the system. That's the Obama game. He talks about new politics but he plays dishonest politics."
She said she hoped Clinton will fight on to the convention. "She is going to fight for the 17 million people who voted for her.
Obama told reporters with his campaign: "I'm not going to do anything to dissuade Sen. Clinton from doing what she thinks is best...But I also understand that many members of the Florida and Michigan delegation feel satisfied that the decision is fair."
While the rules committee's decision cut the states original voting strength in half, it was nonetheless an increase since the party had stripped the two states of all delegates for scheduling their primaries in violation of party rules.
In Florida, that meant a net gain of between 12.5 and 24.5 delegates for Clinton, depending on how 6.5 delegate votes for former candidate John Edwards break.
In Michigan, it meant a net gain of 5 delegate votes.
Yet the Michigan decision outraged Clinton supporters.
Clinton won 73 delegates in the unsanctioned primary vote; 55 delegates were elected uncommitted to any candidate; Obama won none because he wasn't on the ballot.
Seeking to seat the delegates and divide them between the two remaining candidates, Michigan Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer proposed a novel remedy, awarding 69 delegates and 59 for Obama.
He came up with that by using uncounted write in votes for Obama, plus an exit poll from that day showing that Clinton would have had less support and Obama more if both had been on the ballot.
"We find ourselves in a unique and extraordinary situation," Brewer said. "I wish it were better. It's all we have."
At stake are:
_211 delegates in Florida, 185 elected and 26 unelected;
_157 delegates in Michigan, 128 elected and 29 unelected.
Both candidates until now would get no delegates.
For Obama, these are now almost meaningless. Before the vote, he was 42 delegates short of the 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination, and 202 ahead of Hillary Clinton. Now he's 66 short of the 2,118 needed.
His goal was to allow the delegates, even if Clinton gains, so he can make Democrats in those states feel enfranchised and energized for the fall.
For Clinton, any gain helps, but it may not be enough. Before Saturday, she was 202 delegates behind Obama. Now she's about 175 behind.