By Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Oregon
I was determined to attend the official report of the Electoral College to the Joint Session of Congress, if only to balance the painful, surreal memories of Al Gore presiding over the tally that made his defeat official in 2000. It seemed at the time, and we now know it to be true, that absent the Supreme Court's unprecedented intervention, a full and fair count of the Florida ballots might well have yielded a different result and history would have been profoundly changed.
But that was then and this is now, as they say. There was a small measure of satisfaction watching Dick Cheney, as President of the Senate, preside over this session with his lopsided smile/smirk for the last time. Indeed, I almost said "festivities" because there was a special air about it.
Usually, this Joint Session is so lightly attended that the Floor Staff has to pack the Chamber with staff and pages to give the TV audience a full house – no pun intended. This time it wasn't necessary; Members had to search for places to sit as they watched history being made on so many different levels.
Senators Bob Bennett and Chuck Schumer and Representatives Robert Brady and Dan Lungren served as Tellers, the officials responsible for reporting the states' electoral tallies. Initially, the Yea's were bad for the Obama camp and the Democrats as McCain took Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, and Alaska. Then the tide shifted with a run of Blue States, punctuated by the announcement by Representative Lungren—a conservative Republican from California—of his state's 55 electoral votes for Obama. Soon the President-elect's tally rocketed ahead and I found myself mentally keeping track of his votes, trying to determine which state would officially put him over the magic 270 number. (It was New Jersey, with its 15 electoral votes, for those of you keeping track.)
The Tellers announced the results from their own state. Senator Bennett, from what he termed the "fast growing state of Utah", announced 5 electoral votes for McCain. Representative Brady from Pennsylvania and Senator Schumer from New York were positively giddy at the announcement of 31 more votes for Obama, adding an exclamation point behind the already-victorious tally.
There were moments of levity as Ohio produced a Certificate of Election about the size of Delaware. As the count wound down and Dick Cheney announced the results in his monotone drone, the Democratic side of the Chamber rose, clapping and cheering at the final tally: "Barack Obama: 365." The sustained applause even brought the Republican side of the Chamber slowly to its feet until everybody was clapping, creating a pulse of excitement throughout the Chamber.
As the losing tallies were read for John McCain and then for Sarah Palin (the Constitution requires separate tallies for President and Vice President), people again stood and cheered, although with exchanged looks that were hard to decipher. Just as Dick Cheney started to bring the Joint Session to a close, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been sitting quietly next to him, suddenly sprang to her feet and led another eruption of applause in the Chamber, taking Cheney off guard and leaving him with an uncharacteristic look of uncertainty.
This dramatic and sometimes humorous session provided a bright note in a troubled time. After all, it was the last time we would have to endure Dick Cheney presiding over a Joint Session of Congress. As I left the Chamber, I felt optimistic and resolute. The next gathering of the US House and Senate would be to welcome our new President, Barack Obama. Finally, the ghost of the 2000 election receded a little further into the recesses of my memory.