Why America could wake up to President Hastert

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The Independent US

Should a legal battle drag on for weeks between Al Gore and George W. Bush over the presidential election results, Americans could wake up in late January with a man named J. Dennis Hastert in the Oval Office.

Should a legal battle drag on for weeks between Al Gore and George W. Bush over the presidential election results, Americans could wake up in late January with a man named J. Dennis Hastert in the Oval Office.

Hastert, a 14-year member of Congress from Illinois, is the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. Under the Constitution, in certain circumstances when the president and vice president cannot take office by the Jan. 20 inauguration date, the House speaker takes the reins of power for the time being.

Taking it a step further, if there is no speaker, or that person doesn't meet requirements to be president, the temporary White House occupant would be the president pro tempore of the Senate. That person is 97-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

Thurmond won 39 electoral votes in a 1948 run for the presidency as a "States Rights Democrat."

But the duty, unprecedented in the nation's history, most likely would fall to Hastert, a former high school teacher and wrestling coach who took over as speaker in 1998 for conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich and has tried to steer a less confrontational course for the Republican Party congressional majority.

"The House speaker would assume the position of acting president," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. "He would assume the position until any controversy is resolved."

Hastert also would have to resign from the House, forcing the majority Republicans to choose a new speaker for the incoming Congress.

"This is a remarkably bitter prospect for any House speaker in exchange for being a historical footnote," Turley said. "He would have to decapitate his political career."

Still, Republicans could dodge that possibility by choosing someone else as speaker and letting that person resign to become temporary president. And nothing would prevent Hastert from running again for his Illinois seat once the Gore-Bush race is finished.

Republican aides say the entire scenario is highly unlikely, and the speaker is making no contingency plans for the White House.

"We don't think it will come to that," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.

With unofficial recount tallies narrowly giving Bush the 25 critical electoral votes in Florida necessary to win the presidency, the Gore campaign is contemplating legal action over several discrepancies including faulty ballot design in Palm Beach County. Resolving the disputes in court could take considerable time.

The Constitution makes the speaker of the House third in the line of succession if both the president and vice president are unable to serve. Under the 20th Amendment - the one that limits presidents to a pair of four-year terms - the terms of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Gore will end at noon on Jan. 20, when presumably the new team would be sworn in.

The amendment says that if the new president and vice president aren't yet "qualified" for their offices - a long legal challenge could delay the Electoral College from the final act of the 2000 election, naming the president - the law should dictate who should temporarily take over. Federal law identifies that person as the speaker, after he has quit the House.

A separate provision would have the presidential election decided by the House of Representatives, with the Senate choosing the vice president. But that would happen only if neither Bush nor Gore got the required 270 electoral votes. Florida would put either man over the top.

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