Kentucky governor scuttles bill to limit his ability to fill vacant U.S. Senate seat

Published 3:46 pm Monday, March 22, 2021

Kentucky’s Democratic governor vetoed legislation Monday that would empower Republican leaders to influence his choice to temporarily fill a U.S. Senate seat should a vacancy occur.

Gov. Andy Beshear said the measure wrongly seeks to empower “unelected, unaccountable” party bosses. The bill passed by veto-proof margins in clearing the GOP-led legislature.

The measure — backed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — would require a governor to choose from a three-name list provided by party leaders from the same party as the senator who formerly held the seat. With McConnell and fellow Republican Rand Paul holding the Senate seats from Kentucky, that would designate GOP leaders to submit the names.

That would put the power in the hands of a few political party bosses contrary to the 17th Amendment, which gave voters the power to elect U.S. senators, Beshear said.

“Senate Bill 228 violates that very purpose of the amendment by returning the power, specifically in law, to a political party to come up with names for a vacancy,” Beshear said at a news conference.

McConnell’s office declined to comment on the veto, and instead pointed to the senator’s previous comments on the measure. McConnell has said the bill would improve how a vacancy would be filled.

“It would also ensure Kentucky voters have the ability to choose who they think will best represent them in a timely manner, as opposed to leaving that decision to the governor, regardless of party,” McConnell said in a recent statement.

Republicans wield supermajorities in Kentucky’s legislature, giving them the votes to brush aside the veto. Lawmakers will reconvene later this month for the final two days of this year’s session.

But the bill’s supporters could face more hurdles even if the veto is overridden. Beshear, a former attorney general, said he sees the measure as unconstitutional, which could signal a court battle.

Kentucky law currently allows the governor to appoint someone to fill a Senate seat until the next regular election of the U.S. House of Representatives — every two years.

The bill’s lead sponsor is Senate President Robert Stivers, the chamber’s top leader. Stivers, a Republican ally of McConnell, has stressed that the measure doesn’t signal a Senate opening is contemplated. Stivers has acknowledged the bill had sparked questions about the 79-year-old McConnell, who won reelection last year.

“Let me make this definitive statement: He is not sick, he is not leaving — maybe to some people’s chagrin — but he plans to be there,” Stivers told a legislative committee recently.

Any vacancy in the evenly split U.S. Senate would be of enormous consequence. Democrats have the slim edge in the 50-50 chamber because Vice President Kamala Harris is a tie-breaking vote.

Stivers has said the process in his bill for temporarily filling a vacancy would reflect the will of the state’s voters, who have elected Republicans to represent them in the Senate.

The bill also would set up a process for a special election to fill the remainder of the unexpired Senate term. If the vacancy occurred more than three months before a regular election, any candidate able to collect enough signatures would compete in the special election, regardless of party affiliation. If no one received a majority of votes, a runoff would occur between the top two vote-getters.