By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008
After hours of emotional testimony and sometimes contentious debate, Democratic Party officials agreed yesterday on a pair of compromises to seat Florida's and Michigan's delegations to their national convention. But a part of the deal drew an angry reaction and the threat of a subsequent challenge from the campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The compromises by the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee called for both delegations, originally barred from the convention for violating party rules, to be seated in full in Denver but with each delegate casting only half a vote.
The actions by the committee were aimed at bringing the long and sometimes-bitter Democratic nomination battle between Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Clinton (N.Y.) to a close and to ensure party unity as the Democrats head into the general election. But the decisions prompted bitter and sometimes-tearful reactions from some members of the audience, who repeatedly shouted over the committee members as they voted.
Obama remains the heavy favorite to win the nomination, with his campaign hoping that he can secure enough delegates over the next week to do so. Puerto Rico's primary will be held today, and the last two states, Montana and South Dakota, will vote Tuesday. The committee's decisions represented a significant setback to Clinton, who had passionately called for seating both delegations with full votes.
The net result was a gain of 87 delegate votes for Clinton and 63 for Obama. Until yesterday's action, the magic number for winning the nomination was 2,026 delegates. Now the winner will need 2,118. According to a count by the Associated Press, as of last night, Obama controlled 2,052 delegates to Clinton's 1,877.
Obama campaign officials said they will redouble efforts to win over enough superdelegates to put their candidate over the top as quickly as possible, but Clinton hopes to emerge with more popular votes and continues to press the case that she would be a stronger general-election candidate than Obama.
"We're extremely gratified that the commission agreed on a fair solution that will allow Michigan and Florida to participate in the Convention. We appreciate their efforts, and those of the party leadership of both states, to bring this resolution about," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.
The Florida agreement included a provision calling for the delegates to be allocated on the basis of the state's Jan. 29 primary, a decision that would net Clinton 19 more delegates than Obama. Clinton's campaign had pushed for a proposal to seat the full delegation with full voting power, but when that failed, her supporters on the committee relented, and the compromise was approved without a dissenting vote, 27 to 0.
But it was the Michigan plan, approved by a 19 to 8 vote, that drew sharper opposition because of the way that state's delegates will be awarded. Under the plan, Clinton will be given 34.5 delegate votes in Denver to Obama's 29.5 delegate votes, a percentage distribution recommended by leaders of the Michigan Democratic Party but opposed by the Clinton campaign officials, who said it violates the results of Michigan's Jan. 15 primary.
"This motion will hijack -- hijack -- remove four delegates won by Hillary Clinton," said Harold Ickes, who oversees delegate operations for the Clinton campaign and is also a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee. "This body of 30 individuals has decided that they're going to substitute their judgment for 600,000 voters."
Arguing that the Michigan compromise "is not a good way to start down the path of party unity," Ickes warned that Clinton had authorized him to note that she will "reserve her rights to take it to the credentials committee" later. Campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson later affirmed that Clinton will reserve her right to challenge the outcome.
Don Fowler, another Clinton supporter on the panel but not formally tied to the Clinton campaign, voted for the Michigan plan. "It does not represent the first choice of my candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton," he told the panel. "But I think [it is] in the best interest of the party."
Anita Dunn, an Obama spokesman, said after the votes that the committee had taken an important step to unify the party and said she doubts Clinton would have approved of the angry reactions by some of her supporters in the audience.
Dunn said she believes Clinton will seek to unify the party rather than appeal yesterday's decision. Clinton campaign officials said that decision now rests with the candidate after she has had the opportunity to review what happened.
The DNC last year sanctioned both Michigan and Florida for moving up the dates of their primaries in violation of party rules. Determined to send a signal to other states contemplating similar actions, the rules committee voted to bar both from sending delegations to the national convention.
The controversial decisions threatened to diminish the Democrats' chances of carrying Michigan or Florida in November, and as the nomination process has continued, both Clinton and Obama called for finding a resolution that would allow both delegations to go to Denver. But the contenders were sharply at odds over the distribution of delegates.
The committee spent more than five hours hearing challenges yesterday, breaking for lunch about 3 p.m. After the lunch break stretched to three hours, the committee returned with their compromises ready for votes.
The committee began its deliberations by taking up the Florida challenge. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson delivered an emotional appeal to the committee, urging the members to reflect the will of the 1.7 million voters who turned out for the state's Jan. 29 primary.
"These voters violated no rule," he said. "They committed no crime. They did not move the election date forward. The Republican legislature did. Yet they are the ones who would be unfairly punished, and in my humble opinion they do not deserve punishment. They deserve to be heard."
Florida State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, representing the Clinton campaign, traced her own history as a civil rights protester before delivering a powerful appeal to restore Florida's delegation in full with full voting rights.
"You have a unique opportunity right here and right now to write the people of Florida back into this historic election story," she said. "You have the power to say yes, their votes count; yes, their delegates should be seated; yes, their Democratic Party believes that their voices should be heard."
Rep. Robert Wexler, representing the Obama campaign, agreed with others that Florida's delegation should be represented in Denver but conceded that the committee was within its rights to allow half votes for each -- associating the campaign with the proposal of Jon Ausman of the Florida Democratic Party.
Wexler also ducked a question from Clinton supporter and rules committee member Tina Flournoy, who asked whether Obama backs giving Florida delegates full votes in Denver. From the audience, there were cries of "Answer the question!" and "Yes or no!"
Michigan proved a more controversial challenge for the committee, largely because Obama and three other Democratic candidates took their names off the Jan. 15 primary ballot, while Clinton and three others did not, and because the ballot specifically allowed people to cast a vote for "uncommitted."
The particulars of the Michigan experience and the legal fine points of DNC rules created a situation in which the two campaigns and the Michigan Democrats were proposing competing outcomes, all of which drew resistance from some committee members as unallowable under the rules.
Michigan Democratic chairman Mark Brewer and Sen. Carl M. Levin, representing the state, asked for their full delegation to be reinstated with full voting powers. But, calling their primary flawed, they recommended an allocation of the delegates based not only on the results but also on exit polls and an estimate of uncounted write-in ballots.
On the basis of those calculations, they said Clinton should receive 69 delegates and Obama 59. Clinton's campaign called for allocation based on the primary, giving her 73 delegates to Obama's 55. Obama's campaign said the delegation should be split 50-50 between the two candidates but did not take a position on whether the Michigan delegates should receive a full vote or half vote.
The Michigan Democratic Party proposal drew skepticism from members of the rules committee. "It seems to me that this way lies chaos," Elaine Kamarck said. "That if we start setting precedents that state parties can take a little bit of data from a primary and some data from exit polls and some data from assumptions they made, that we're really in trouble."
But in the end, the committee decided to set aside those qualms.
During the first session, Ickes pointedly challenged Levin over the Michigan plan, saying it would strip Clinton of delegates she had rightly earned through the primary. "Why not take 10?" he asked indignantly. "Take 20. Just keep on going."
"You're calling for a fair reflection of a flawed election," Levin shot back. "And what we're trying to do is keep a party together so we can win a critical state in November."