WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Clinton administration is sitting tight on $5.3 million set aside to help the new president prepare for office, even if it takes until next year to pick a winner.

``We're in uncharted waters,'' said General Services Administration spokeswoman Beth Newburger. ``Anybody who assumes either side is going to be the winner is going to be in a very awkward position if it winds up the other way.''

As required by law, the GSA set up a transition office complete with computers and telephones and stood ready to turn over the keys _ and the bank account _ to either Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore the morning after Election Day.

But with recounting and court battles continuing in Florida, Newburger said it's possible the transition office could sit idle until Jan. 6, when the new Congress convenes to officially count electoral votes.

Under the Constitution, the next president will be sworn in Jan. 20, possibly leaving scant time to begin making some 6,000 appointments.

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta sent a memo last week to all agencies advising them that the transition money and office won't be available ``until a president-elect is identified.''

Newburger said that memo wouldn't affect the GSA's timing. GSA Administrator David J. Barram is charged with determining the ``apparent'' winner before turning over the transition perks.

The law doesn't say what criteria Barram should use.

``We believe that when the winner is apparent to the rest of the United States, it will be apparent to us, too,'' Newburger said. ``That is what we will follow. We will not be embroiled in the legal issues.''