As 111th Senate Is Set to Begin, Four Seats Still Up in Air

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009

As the gavel quietly fell yesterday on the final session of the 110th Senate, officials in several states sought to cut through the confusion surrounding a quartet of chamber seats whose future occupants remain undetermined amid succession fights and election recount disputes.

In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is expected to announce today that Michael F. Bennet, the superintendent of Denver's public schools, will succeed Sen. Ken Salazar (D) once Salazar is confirmed as interior secretary this month. In New York, Gov. David A. Paterson attempted to knock down reports that he has decided on Caroline Kennedy as his appointee to replace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) after she is confirmed as secretary of state, even as key state party officials continued to push for Kennedy's appointment.

In Illinois, Roland W. Burris, the selection of embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to succeed President-elect Barack Obama in the Senate, filed another legal motion yesterday to try to force state officials to recognize his appointment, which would allow him to take his fight to the Capitol in time for Tuesday's start of the 111th Congress.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, declared that under no circumstances would they agree to seat Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota, who is clinging to a 49-vote lead in the recount of his race against Sen. Norm Coleman, if Coleman files a legal challenge.

"It is the height of arrogance for any political leader in Washington, D.C., to tell the people of Minnesota whose vote should count and whose vote shouldn't count," Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a conference call with reporters.

The uncertainty about those seats comes as the Senate concluded its work from the contentious 110th Congress yesterday with a 27-second pro forma session in a near-empty chamber. As part of a standoff with President Bush over the process of nominating federal officials, Senate Democrats had refused to fully adjourn the chamber and instead, while on periodic breaks over the past 14 months, had convened dozens of open-and-shut sessions that by rule prohibited Bush from making interim appointments.

When the new session begins Tuesday, the Senate is expected to have 98 members, without those from Illinois and Minnesota. One of those being sworn in to a new term will be Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). In addition to winning the vice presidency on Nov. 4, Biden was also elected to a seventh term, requiring him to begin the new session that his replacement will soon take over for the next two years.

Setting it apart from what is happening in the other states with imminent vacancies, Biden's succession process ended in mid-November with the announcement that Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, his former chief of staff, would receive the temporary appointment, setting up an open contest in November 2010 for the remaining four years of the term.

According to state laws, the governors of all four states in question appoint the successors, with election set in 2010 for full terms.

Ritter's selection of Bennet cleared the field in Colorado. A political novice who served as chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Bennet in 2005 took charge of the city's school system, implementing changes that led to improved test scores. Bennet grew up in the District and attended St. Albans School, Wesleyan University and Yale Law School, and ran an investment company in Denver.

His appointment could be an unwelcome development for some Hispanics, who cheered Salazar's 2004 election victory, along with that of Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the first Hispanics to serve in the Senate since 1976. Martinez plans to retire in 2010, and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is the only other Hispanic in the chamber.

Paterson brushed aside reports that he has chosen Kennedy, who is the heir to her family's political dynasty and who has been outspoken in her effort to secure the appointment. "There is no front-runner, and the governor is not on the verge of any decision," Errol Cockfield, Paterson's spokesman, said in an interview.

But state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democratic power broker who had publicly criticized Kennedy, told New York media outlets that Kennedy is "obviously very bright," a sign that insiders interpreted as a possible blessing of her appointment.

Like Salazar, Clinton is awaiting her confirmation hearing, set for mid-January, with the earliest possible confirmation coming on Jan. 20, the day of Obama's inauguration. Both senators have said they will not resign until they are confirmed.

That leaves Illinois and Minnesota up in the air, with Burris's appointment still opposed by both parties because of the criminal case pending against Blagojevich and with partisan acrimony surrounding the Coleman-Franken recount.

Burris filed a motion yesterday asking the Illinois Supreme Court to "act quickly" on his earlier motion to compel Secretary of State Jesse White to certify his appointment. Burris hopes to be officially appointed before Tuesday's ceremonies despite objections from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats to his selection.

Prince Riley, an aide to Burris, said the former Illinois attorney general plans to travel to Washington next week, but played down speculation that Burris would attempt to enter the Senate chamber without approval from Senate leaders. "Senator Burris respects Senator Reid and the other members of the Senate and is only seeking that which is legal and required under the appointment laws of Illinois," Riley said.

Because Blagojevich has been charged with trying to sell the Senate appointment for financial gain or a future appointment, Obama and Senate Democrats have opposed seating anyone the governor chooses. Several legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of Reid's attempt to block the appointment.

Minnesota election officials expect to go through the final batch of votes in that Senate race this weekend, setting up the potential for a ruling on the final vote count as early as Monday. Coleman has alleged that Franken's current slim lead is based on the accidental double-counting of more than 100 votes from Minneapolis, a Franken stronghold, and may file a legal challenge next week.

If Coleman takes such a step, Cornyn said, his fellow GOP senators will stand with him and filibuster any effort by Democrats to seat the comedian-turned-politician.

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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