With his own political future in mind, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is slow-walking the appointment of a senator to replace the late Robert Byrd. But Manchin also is holding up Democratic legislation in the Senate, where only a few weeks remain to consider several big agenda items before the summer adjournment.
Manchin, a Democrat, said in a speech he will not fill the Senate vacancy until the state legislature approves a time to hold a special election to fill the remaining two years of Byrd's term, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. Manchin has said he is likely to run for the seat and wants to hold a November special election. Manchin wants the legislature to approve that date before he appoints a Democrat who essentially will serve as his placeholder.
Manchin has summoned the West Virginia legislature to convene and decide on the matter Thursday, which means Manchin may not appoint a new senator until Friday at the earliest and perhaps much later if state lawmakers are unable to agree.
In the meantime, Senate Democrats are lacking a critically needed vote, which has stalled action on their agenda.
The House will be in session just three more weeks before leaving until September. The Senate will adjourn in four weeks.
When Byrd died June 28, the number of Democratically controlled votes fell to 58, two short of the 60 needed to block a Republican filibuster.
It was already difficult for Senate Democrats to pass legislation, and the vacancy left by Byrd has made it nearly impossible.
Before leaving for the weeklong July 4 recess Democrats were unable to pass a bill to extend unemployment benefits and lacked the votes to pass a conference report on financial regulatory reform, which would have cleared the legislation for President Obama's signature.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hoped to take up financial reform this week but is still at least one vote short. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., on Monday announced he will vote for the bill, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has also pledged her support. But Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said he will vote against the bill because he believes it is not stringent enough.
An additional Democratic vote is particularly critical for the unemployment benefits bill, which would extend federal benefits for the jobless until the end of November. When the Senate took it up July 1, it fell just one vote short of passage. The benefits expired in June.
"We've tried for months to help people," Reid said Monday on the Senate floor. "Nearly every Democrat has said 'Yes,' and nearly every Republican has said 'No.' That opposition is stopping recovery in its tracks."
Robert Rupp, a history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said Manchin is smart to first get the legislature to clarify the process in order to avoid potential legal challenges.
"Why not follow procedure and be careful and have the legislature clear it up," Rupp said. "West Virginia should take its time to make sure it is legal and constitutional."