WASHINGTON—With the presidency at stake, the Supreme Court will assemble today to seek a constitutional formula for ending the conflict over the last unsettled electoral votes - Florida's decisive 25.
The nine justices, returning to their courtroom for the second time in 10 days to confront the disputed election, will hold a 90-minute hearing starting at 11 a.m. on the case aptly titled Bush vs. Gore. A decision could come today or tomorrow.
George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore.
Outside the court, there appears to be a developing expectation that the court is about to utter the last word - or at least set the stage for a quick windup of the Florida dispute and a prompt answer to the question of who the next president will be.
In final written arguments yesterday on the eve of the hearing, the opposing lawyers did not directly ask the court to make their candidate the next president. But they vigorously defended legal positions that would, if successful, have that practical result.
Bush's attorneys lashed out at the Florida Supreme Court, denouncing its ruling permitting hand recounts as "a recipe for electoral chaos." Those recounts were blocked by the U.S. high court on Saturday, by a split, 5-4 vote.
The Bush attorneys urged the court to bar the state court from any further role in resolving the election, to undo both of the state court's rulings that favored Gore and to roll back the legal clock to the time before those two rulings - a result that would make Bush the Florida winner by 930 votes.
Lawyers for Gore urged the court not to second-guess the Florida court's interpretation of the laws of its own state. They argued that the justices' "intervention would run an impermissible risk of tainting the result of the election in Florida - and thereby the nation."
The state court's decision authorizing recounts of votes, the vice president's team asserted, would do no more than make sure "all the ballots lawfully cast" were counted. If that decision were to be upheld, Gore's lawyers are confident that he would win in Florida.
A Supreme Court ruling that barred any further recounts, and barred the Florida court from adding any new steps to the process, would have the look of finality, even if it is decided by a 5-4 majority.
And it could erode Gore's remaining political support and force him to abandon his quest for the presidency.
Even a ruling against Bush might not go far enough to enhance Gore's chances of catching up. If the court permitted hand recounts to resume, the crucial question would become one of time - whether there were enough hours and days left for Gore to make sufficient gains as the calendar advances toward the voting Dec. 18 by the Electoral College.
And even if Gore did pull ahead in votes before Dec. 18, a complication could arise, with the Florida Legislature stepping in - as it intends to do, if necessary - to name a Bush slate of electors.
Besides the consequences of the decision itself, a good deal of public fascination will focus on what effect a final ruling by the justices might have on the reputation of the Supreme Court.
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, speaking for the Gore campaign on CNN's "Late Edition," said he is concerned that the Supreme Court is "entering the political thicket in a 5-4 posture." Christopher warned that "in the long view of history," such a split "will be seen to weaken the court."
So far, none of the justices has used the phrase "constitutional crisis" to describe what has been happening in Florida in the 34 days since Election Day. But the chief justice of Florida's Supreme Court used those words last week.
Last Monday, three days after holding their first hearing on the Florida dispute, the justices in Washington chose not to force a conclusion at that point. But since then, these things have changed to add urgency to the court's return to the dispute today:
Florida is just one day away from a congressionally imposed deadline to complete its choice of presidential electors, if it wants assurances that they will be accepted when Congress counts electoral votes Jan. 5. The justices appear to regard tomorrow's deadline as a key factor in the timing of their decision.
The nation is one week away from the meetings of 538 electors, who are to choose the president, and Florida does not yet know whom its 25 electors will be pledged to support. With Gore now leading among electors, 267-246, apparently neither candidate can reach the needed majority of 270 votes and claim the presidency without Florida's 25 electors.