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Obama replacement, Biden replacement, Blagojevich appointment
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Rahm Emanuel (left) talks with President-elect Barack Obama.

States Ponder Replacements as Obama, Biden Senate Seats Open Up

November 10, 2008 08:00 AM
by Josh Katz
As Obama and Biden leave the Senate for the White House, how will these and other congressional vacancies be filled?

Presidential Election Creates Vacancies in Congress

The Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, changed the way U.S. senators are elected. The Amendment allowed the people of a state, rather than state legislatures, to elect senators. The Amendment also reads: “When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”

Thanks to the Seventeenth Amendment, the governors of Illinois and Delaware have the task of choosing senatorial replacements for Barack Obama and Joe Biden that will last for two years. Obama and Biden have until Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 to resign their Senate seats, but will probably do so sooner in order to prevent their replacements from losing seniority to other senators who are sworn in on Jan. 6, according to Fox News. Any senator sworn in after that date “would be absolute last in seniority, and last in line for everything from office space to parking to committee assignments.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Clout Street blog reports that, “Illinois law requires a special election to be held when a vacancy for Congress occurs more than 180 days before the next election, which is now two years away. The law requires [Ill. Gov. Rod] Blagojevich to set the date of the election within five days of the official vacancy.”

Opinion & Analysis: Who will replace Obama and Biden?

Obama is the first acting senator to win the presidency since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy’s roommate from college, Benjamin A. Smith II, took his place in the Senate. According to The Wall Street Journal Washington Wire blog, “if history is any guide, Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will appoint a Democrat close to Obama.” The blog also states that Blagojevich might tap another African-American, as Obama is the only black senator.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of the well-known reverend, is seen as a possible replacement. He has been a strong supporter of Obama and even defended the senator against attacks from his father. Jackson Jr. has also expressed interest in the position. The problem with choosing Jackson is that some Democrats fear he won’t be able to hold onto the seat if he tries for reelection in a few years.

Jesse White, Ill. secretary of state; Emil Jones Jr., Ill. state senate president; and Rep. Danny Davis are other black politicians seen as possible successors to Obama. Tammy Duckworth, Blagojevich’s director of veterans affairs, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky are considered popular candidates for the job. Duckworth served in the military and may appeal to independent voters and Schakowsky “is beloved by Illinois labor,” according to the Journal.

There is another option available to Blagojevich: he could appoint himself as Senator. However, he has said that he will not do so, and that he will choose a replacement by Jan. 1. According to Fox News, “Political analysts warn that anyone appointed by Blagojevich, whose administration has been tarnished by federal investigation, will face a daunting task in winning an election in 2010.” Steve Brown, a Democratic Party spokesman, said that an independent committee should be formed to consult with Blagojevich about the appointment in order to evade Republican criticism.

In Delaware, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner holds the responsibility of picking Biden’s replacement. Biden has pushed for his son, Del. Attorney General Beau Biden, to assume the job, but he is serving in Iraq for another year. In other words, Minner would have to choose a placeholder candidate, like Del. Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron Steele or Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor. Or she could pick a long-term option, such as Lt. Gov. John Carney “because of his ambition to senator.”

However, Gov. Minner’s gubernatorial term comes to a close on Jan. 20. If Biden doesn’t resign before then, incoming Gov. Jack Markell would have to find Biden’s replacement.
Who will replace Emanuel?
But Obama and Biden are not the only politicians who will leave their congressional seats bare for a trip to the U.S. executive branch. Obama still has a Cabinet to fill. He recently appointed Ill. Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, leaving Blagojevich with another position to fill. The Illinois state rules are different for replacing representatives, and Blagojevich must schedule a special-election date within 120 days of Emanuel’s resignation.

Democrats should not be worried about losing Emanuel’s congressional seat, however, as the district is staunchly blue. State Sen. John Cullerton and state Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz appear to be the frontrunners for the spot. Although Cullerton would probably have the advantage, he is currently in a close race for the state Senate presidency that probably won’t be resolved until January.

The Chicago Tribune Clout Street blog cites a number of other possible candidates for Emanuel’s position, such as Ald. Thomas Allen and state Rep. John Fritchey. Gov. Blagojevich’s sister-in-law, who won a seat on the state House on Election Day, has also “expressed interest” in the job.

Either way, Emanuel’s appointment appears to have caught some observers by surprise. “I think the conventional wisdom was Congressman Emanuel is likely to be the congressman for another decade or two on his path to becoming the Speaker,” Ill. Democratic lobbyist and consultant Dan Johnson-Weinberger, said. “So I think this is an unexpected development,” The Hill reports.

Related Topics: Massachusetts and Alaska ponder Kerry and Stevens replacements

Governors are not always responsible for appointing temporary senators, however. The Democratic Legislature changed the law in Massachusetts during Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 run for the presidency. Republican Mitt Romney was governor at the time, and the Democratic Legislature didn’t want to take the chance of him selecting a fellow Republican to the post. Now, “a vacant US Senate seat would have to be filled by a special election within 140 to 160 days of the resignation,” The Boston Globe reports.

The issue is once again in the limelight in Massachusetts. Not only is John Kerry on the short list for secretary of state under Obama but longtime Sen. Edward Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor earlier this year. As a result, according to the Globe, the Democrat-controlled Legislature may want to revise the law again. Without a Republican governor, they are afraid that people might choose a Republican senator. Current Gov. Deval Patrick said he would consider changing back to the old law, but he was "not pushing a change."

Another prominent senatorial vacancy could come from Alaska. Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the chamber, is now a convicted felon stemming from corruption charges. Nevertheless, he holds a small lead for re-election, ahead of Democrat Mark Begich. The votes are still being counted, but Stevens may very well become the first Senator to be reelected after being found guilty of a felony.

Members of the Senate have indicated that they would quickly expel him by a two-thirds vote if he were re-elected. In fact, Nathan Thornburgh of Time magazine implies that Alaskans may have voted for Stevens despite his criminal record because they knew he would get expelled from the Senate, and then Gov. Sarah Palin could appoint another Republican in a staunchly red state.

But the law regarding senatorial vacancies is “a bit hazy” in Alaska, and has been altered a few times as of late, according to Christopher Orr of The New Republic. He writes: “if [Stevens] resigns (or is expelled), a special election would be held for his seat within 90 days. What's not clear (conflicting laws were passed in 2004 by the legislature and by ballot initiative) is whether Governor Sarah Palin would appoint a temporary successor in the interim.”

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