- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2010

The death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd early Monday set off political scrambling in his home state of West Virginia and in the halls of Congress, where the Democrat served for more than a half-century.

A top state official said Monday that West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, will appoint a replacement rather than call an immediate special election to fill the vacancy for the remaining 2 1/2 years of Mr. Byrd’s term.

The decision, at least for now, ends what state Democratic and Republican leaders privately described as a flurry of intense meetings about potential replacements and how to interpret the state’s succession law. The hastily called meetings were held discreetly out of respect for Mr. Byrd, the longest serving member of Congress and a towering figure in his state.

In Washington, amid a public outpouring of sympathy, Senate Democratic leaders were privately pondering the new balance of power with a key vote looming over President Obama’s financial regulatory package. Mr. Byrd’s death means that Democrats are two votes short of a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority.

Republicans had pressed for a special election to replace Mr. Byrd, with rising hopes of capturing a Senate seat from West Virginia for the first time since 1959, but Mr. Manchin will almost certainly appoint a Democrat to serve out the term.

West Virginia law states that the governor can appoint a replacement if the senator has completed 30 months of his term or hold a special election within 30 months of the term. Mr. Byrd, 92, died five days before the 30-month deadline on naming a replacement, but Mr. Manchin is not likely to announce his pick until after the deadline has passed.

“We would like a special election,” said Troy Berman, executive director of the state Republican Party. “Thirty [more] months is an incredibly long time. All West Virginians would like an opportunity to vote for who gets that seat.”

Mr. Berman said party leaders are taking a close look at the law to “see what their options are.”

West Virginia State Secretary Natalie E. Tennant said in a statement that because of the timing, the state will hold two votes for the seat on Election Day 2012 — one to fill the “unexpired” five weeks of Mr. Byrd’s final term and another for the full six-year term that begins in January 2013.

“Had Senator Byrds term not run out in 2012 there would not have been this unique situation. It would have just been for the unexpired term,” she said.

Democrats in Washington were concerned about losing Mr. Byrd’s key vote in favor of the Wall Street regulatory package, which they originally hoped to pass through the House and Senate and send to President Obama for his signature before the July Fourth recess.

The Senate approved its original version of the bill last month by a 59-36 vote, with four Republicans voting in favor and two Democrats in opposition. But one of the Republicans in support, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, recently indicated that he could reconsider his vote because of changes made in the compromise version approved last week by House and Senate negotiators.

To break any filibuster, Democratic leaders will need to replace the lost votes of Mr. Brown and Mr. Byrd while not losing the support of any more wavering Republicans. Options include waiting for Mr. Byrd’s Democratic replacement to be seated — almost certainly missing the target date — and trying to flip at least one Democratic dissident.

The most likely prospect is Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the other Democrat to vote against the financial regulatory bill, affirmed Monday that he would not support the legislation.

Mr. Manchin said Monday that he had no timetable for naming an interim senator and that his first priority was to pay respects to Mr. Byrd and his family.

Mr. Manchin, who has long been rumored to have national political ambitions, said hours after Mr. Byrd’s death that he would not appoint himself. He is expected to appoint a “placeholder” to fill the seat for his expected Senate run in 2012, when the governor’s term ends.

Among the names mentioned are Nick Puccio, Mr. Manchin’s former chief of staff who was just named interim chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Nick Casey, who recently resigned as chairman to accept a federal judiciary appointment.

Also mentioned have been former Democratic Govs. Gaston Caperton, now president of the College Board, and Bob Wise, Mr. Manchin’s immediate predecessor and now head of a nonprofit educational foundation.

Among the leading Republican candidates for 2012 is fifth-term Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore. She declined an offer by party leaders to challenge Mr. Byrd in 2006 when he won a record ninth term in office.

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