WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the overtime struggle for the White House on Friday, agreeing to consider George W. Bush's appeal against the hand recounting of ballots in Florida. The secretary of state said she was prepared to certify the election Sunday night, regardless.
Acting just as final votes were being tallied, the court ordered lawyers for Bush and Al Gore to ''brief and argue'' their cases next week.
The court's action could mean that the closest presidential contest in 124 years will not be settled before early December, nearly a month after Americans deadlocked Nov. 7.
By late Friday, recounts had whittled Bush's lead by about 200 votes, to 724 out of about 6 million cast in the Nov 7. election. The tallies went into the weekend under a state court's order that was meant to allow the Florida secretary of state in Florida to certify a winner on Sunday evening.
Aides for both Bush and Gore aides have said the candidates were prepared to contest the Florida results if they felt votes had been improperly invalidated.
Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a strong Bush supporter, plans to certify Florida's election Sunday night.
''The Department of State is prepared for the earliest contingency, which would be certification Sunday evening,'' chief of staff Ben McKay said. ''This will be done publicly regardless of the outcome, which is, of course, unknown at this time.''
The Supreme Court's decision to take the Bush appeal was a surprise in some quarters because elections are often seen as state business and an earlier Bush challenge had been turned back to the state by a federal circuit court.
The court set up a breakneck schedule for next week: legal briefs are due on Tuesday and responses Thursday, then 90 minutes of oral arguments starting at 10 a.m. Friday.
Bush sought the court's intervention after the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously to continue the state counting deadline from Nov. 17 to Nov. 26, and to allow election officials to consider a voter's intent in the case of disputed ballots. County votes were to have been accepted until 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Gore's lawyers had argued that the Florida process of recounts, punctuated by state court disputes over how to conduct them and whether to include disputed military ballots from abroad, was a state matter, not one for Supreme Court intervention.
''The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted,'' the Supreme Court said, announcing it will hear the appeal next Friday, Dec. 1.
The court did nothing that would deter Harris from certifying the outcome of the election Sunday, scheduled for sometime after 6 p.m. EST. The Florida Supreme Court had ruled that the tally should include any recounted ballots certified by 5 p.m. The winner stood to receive Florida's 25 electoral votes, enough for either Bush or Gore to gain the nationwide majority of 270 needed to claim the presidency.
The Supreme Court declined to hear a second Bush appeal, of a federal judge's earlier ruling in Miami that the re-counts could continue.
While the court after unfolded in Washington, canvassers sifted contested ballots in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, and Democrats accused Republicans of sending paid demonstrators to try to intimidate election officials.
Gore gained votes in a recanvass in heavily Democratic Palm Beach and Broward counting, while Bush picked up in a recount of absentee ballots from servicemen and women abroad.
Dick Cheney, the Republican vice presidential candidate, was released from a Washington hospital after two days of treatment for a mild heart attack. He said doctors told him to take the weekend off, then ''return to a fairly normal schedule.'' He said ''there are no restrictions'' on his work, including the vice presidency.
With a crop of lawsuits by both sides, and with differing ballot standards in each counties recounting by hand ballots that had not registered in voting machines because voters had not fully punched out the punchcards, the route to the White House was through a swamp of controversy.
Short of a Supreme Court decision to stop it all, there was no finish line in view.
The court's decision to hear Bush's appeal came after aides to Gore said they were planning to challenge any Bush victory in Florida on the grounds that some Democratic votes had not been validated.
''We believe we stand on both strong political and legal ground for fighting beyond Sunday,'' said Ron Klain, a Gore adviser. He pointed to the decision of the Miami-Dade County canvassing board to stop its recount for lack of time to finish by Sunday. The Gore camp had expected to gain in the 10,000 ballots disputed there.
Democrats said Republican protesters were disrupting the recount process, and accused them of intimidating Miami recounters into quitting.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, stepped out of Gore's residence in Washington to denounce demonstrations he said had been orchestrated by Republicans ''to intimidate and to prevent a simple count of votes from going forward ...
''This is a time to honor the rule of law, not surrender to the rule of the mob,'' Lieberman said.
David Boies, Gore's lead lawyer, said Republican demonstrators who pushed to get past guards into the closed counting room in Miami on Wednesday had cowed the canvassers, suggesting that is why they voted to stop their recount. He described the GOP protests as ''mini riots.'' The Democrats had staged their own demonstrations in West Palm Beach earlier in the dispute, but Boies said there was no parallel.
Both parties had demonstrators in the recount cities on Friday.
Six Democratic members of Congress demanded a Justice Department investigation on Friday, saying civil rights had been violated in ''a shocking case of undermining the right to vote through intimidation and threats of violence.''
''The Republicans are out of control,'' said Jenny Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. She accused them of using paid agitators to ''create mob rule in Miami.''
Each side imported legions of lawyers to contest every point in the election dispute.
''We've lost count of the number of lawsuits that have been initiated by the Gore legal team,'' said Bush lawyer Theodore Olson.
Boies said the Bush campaign ''has already filed a contest with respect to about a dozen counties ... So regardless of who is ahead on Sunday night or not, there will be contests pending ... by both sides.''
The 25 Florida electors who would decide whether Bush or Gore is president-elect are to be certified on Dec. 12. But the Florida legislature, run by Republicans, could intercede to decide whether they belong to Bush or Gore. The electoral college meets Dec. 18 in Washington to elect the new president.
Secretary of State Harris told the Supreme Court in papers filed on Friday that the Florida Supreme Court ''made a number of changes'' in the state's election laws with its ruling on Tuesday requiring that recounts be recognized.
While she sought intervention, Palm Beach County argued against it. ''Among the hallmarks of our democratic process if patience,'' lawyers for the Democratic county commission said. ''... There is no constitutional crisis.''
Bush's Friday filing said the opposition brief submitted by the Florida Democratic Party for Gore ''cannot and does not dispute that the exceedingly important nature of this case provides a powerful justification for review by this court.
''This court has repeatedly recognized the powerful federal interest in the selection of presidential electors,'' the Republican brief said.
In the quarrelsome recount process, Gore apparently lost a point in Palm Beach County, where canvassers reaffirmed their decision to count partially punched ballots only if the same mistake had been made when the voter marked choices for congressional and local candidates, not only in the presidential election.
The Bush campaign sued in Tallahassee, the state capitol, asking for a recount of overseas absentee ballots in 14 counties with heavy military populations. Democratic challenges had led hundreds of them to be rejected.
Republicans sent a congressional team, and former Sen. Bob Dole, to protest that before the TV cameras in Ft. Lauderdale. ''Let's count their votes, let's count their votes, let's count their votes,'' said Dole.