Bill curbs Beshear’s choice to fill vacant Senate seat

Published 9:24 pm Monday, March 29, 2021

Sen. Mitch McConnell secured a victory from his home state legislature on Monday when Republican lawmakers stripped Kentucky’s Democratic governor of his independent power to temporarily fill a U.S. Senate seat should a vacancy occur.

Kentucky’s GOP-dominated legislature swept aside Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of the measure that’s supported by McConnell, the U.S. Senate GOP leader. But the override might not be the final word. The governor has called the bill unconstitutional, which could signal a potential court challenge.

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

The bill would replace a process that allowed 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 Kentucky measure would limit a governor to choosing from a three-name list, which is to be provided by party leaders from the same party as the senator who formerly held the seat.

McConnell has said the bill would improve how a Senate vacancy would be filled. Beshear has said it would delegate authority to “unelected, unaccountable” party bosses in violation of the federal Constitution.

With McConnell and fellow Republican Rand Paul holding the Senate seats from Kentucky, that would designate Republican Party leaders to submit the names to the governor.

Democratic Rep. Patti Minter denounced the bill Monday night as a “blatant and extremely partisan power grab,” adding: “It wouldn’t be happening if we had a Republican governor.”

Republican Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy countered that the bill would put the decision in the hands of Kentucky voters sooner by setting terms for a special election for the Senate seat.

“The governor still appoints and under this bill we get to a special election even quicker than we would under current law,” Rudy said.

Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, a McConnell ally who sponsored the bill, has stressed that the measure most certainly didn’t signal that a Senate opening was contemplated. The 79-year-old McConnell had discussed the legislation with the state’s top Senate leader.

Beshear, a former state attorney general, has said the bill would empower political party bosses in violation of constitutional provisions that gave voters the power to elect U.S. senators.

The bill’s supporters said the process for temporarily filling a vacancy should reflect election results, which have sent Republicans to represent Kentucky in the Senate.

“Shouldn’t policy always reflect the will of the people? And I think this policy does that,” Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith said during a Monday debate.

Stivers has acknowledged the bill sparked questions about 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 said at a legislative committee hearing on the bill.

The bill 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.