- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 29, 2009

With the death this week of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, seven seats in the Senate have either opened since the last election or soon will, the most vacancies in the upper chamber in any one year in six decades.

Two of the vacancies resulted from the winning ticket of Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the presidential election.

The vacancies - and the problems that have emerged as states try to fill them - have focused new attention on efforts to establish a more uniform way of dealing with the problem, perhaps by amending the Constitution.

President-elect Obama named two senators to the Cabinet - former Colorado Sen. Kenneth Salazar to the Interior Department and former New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to the State Department. Since then, two Republican senators, Mel Martinez of Florida and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, have announced plans to leave office this fall, before their terms expire.

With the exception of the Kennedy seat, the other six have been or will be filled by people appointed by their state’s governors. Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist announced Friday he will appoint longtime aide and fellow Republican George LeMieux to replace Mr. Martinez until the November 2010 elections.

The changes have not affected the balance of power thus far, because all the vacancies have come from states where the departing senators are from the same party as the state’s governor.

FairVote, a nonpartisan group that promotes greater access to the political process, said that the departures of lawmakers mean that four out of the five most-populous states - Illinois, New York, Florida and Texas - with almost 27 percent of the U.S. population, will be represented in part by unelected senators.

There are calls for change in a replacement system that many say is not democratic. Critics point not only to the high number of vacancies but also to the manner in which some have been filled.

In Illinois, impeached former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich faces charges that he tried to sell Mr. Obama’s vacated Senate seat. Roland Burris, the eventual appointee, has not been implicated in the scandal but has been tainted by the controversy and will not be running for a full term.

New York endured a media frenzy as Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, announced her desire to replace Mrs. Clinton, and then eventually withdrew her name after a lackluster effort to prove she was qualified. Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson then appointed Kirsten Gillibrand, a little-known Democratic congresswoman from upstate New York.

The Congressional Research Service said there have been 184 Senate appointments since 1913, when the 17th Amendment became effective, replacing the selection of senators by state legislatures with direct popular voting.

Of those, seven were the widows of senators, two the spouses of the governor, three the sons of senators and one the daughter of a governor.

Frank Murkowski’s appointment of his daughter Lisa in 2002 after he left the Senate to successfully run for governor of Alaska prompted legislation and a voter referendum that require quick special elections, although with differing provisions on the governor’s authority to make temporary appointments.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, joined by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment requiring elections for Senate vacancies - the Constitution already requires House vacancies to be filled by elections - and end what Mr. Feingold called “an antidemocratic process that denies voters the opportunity to determine who represents them in the U.S. Senate.”

Rep. David Dreier of California, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, and Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, have introduced an identical proposal in the House.

The Feingold measure cleared a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in early August, but faces the very high hurdles that defeat almost all efforts to alter the Constitution. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has made clear he doesn’t support it, saying at a news conference that he did not favor “dictating to a state what they should do.”

If that fails, House Republicans, led by Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois, have proposed a measure that would allow governors or state legislatures to make interim appointments but require special elections within 90 days of a vacancy.

Special elections have their detractors, who argue they are too expensive, take too much time to organize and are characterized by low voter turnouts that are not particularly representative.

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