State Election Laws May Cut Senate Democrats' Majority

Three Democratic Senate appointees will see their terms expire right after the November election, making the lame-duck session even more difficult

(Bloomberg) — Quirks in state election laws may reduce Senate Democrats' majority right after the November election, making the always-difficult task of legislating during a possible lame-duck session even tougher.

The terms of Democrats Roland Burris of Illinois, Ted Kaufman of Delaware and West Virginia's Carte Goodwin, all appointed to their seats, will expire with the Nov. 2 elections. None are on the ballot, and their successors may take office that month rather than in January when winning candidates are normally seated, state election officials said.

Republicans are mounting strong challenges in the three states and victories by the party's candidates would cut Democrats' 59-seat Senate majority. In a lame-duck session, that would give Republicans a stronger hand in negotiations over issues that could include the future of President George W. Bush's tax cuts and recommendations by the administration's debt commission.

Pat Griffin, former chief congressional liaison for President Bill Clinton's administration, said he doesn't expect much action in a lame-duck session this year regardless of what happens in those races, especially if Democrats lose big in November.

"When there's a big wipeout, I'd bet dollars to donuts, no matter what the specifics are, that people are going to do as little as possible and punt into the next year," Griffin said.

Senate Schedule

Lawmakers, now on their summer recess, plan to return to Washington next week for at least three weeks before leaving again to campaign. The Senate is scheduled to reconvene the week of Nov. 15 for a lame-duck session, with the possibility of working again after the Nov. 25 Thanksgiving holiday. Last year, the Senate worked until Christmas Eve to pass its version of President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters in Las Vegas on Sept. 7 that he is "committed" to holding a lame-duck session, saying "we have a lot of mopping up to do," according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The to-do list includes Obama's job-creating proposals, a dozen spending bills needed to fund the government, legislation to promote lending to small businesses and revive expired business tax cuts, a defense bill and a stalled food-safety measure that advocates hope will pass following the egg recall in August.

Senate Democrats have struggled this year to find the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican stalling tactics. In one example, an extension of unemployment benefits was delayed until Goodwin's seating in July to succeed the late Senate Democrat Robert Byrd gave them the last vote needed to approve it.

Six Appointees

There are currently six appointed senators, the most since 1962, and their terms are set by state laws. Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, along with Florida Republican George LeMieux, will serve until January. Gillibrand and Bennet are seeking full terms; LeMieux isn't.

According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Republicans are likely to win the Delaware seat, the Illinois race is a toss-up and the West Virginia contest leans Democratic. Illinois is holding a special election the same day as the general election to determine who will hold Burris's seat between November and January. A judge ruled that the general election candidates, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, will also appear on the special election ballot.

Burris wants to serve until January and is challenging the judge's decision, said spokesman Jim O'Connor.

Obama's Replacement

Burris was appointed to replace Obama while Kaufman was named Vice President Joseph Biden's successor.

In Delaware, U.S. Representative Mike Castle is the leading Republican candidate to replace Kaufman. If he were to win, though, he may not be seated until January.

That's because Delaware Governor Jack Markell, a Democrat, has the power to choose who holds the seat until then and appointing Castle would leave the state without its lone representative in the House, said Markell spokesman Brian Selander. The governor doesn't have the power to make appointments to the House.

"The question of who then gets the appointment is a decision that the governor has not made and is not going to make until he has to make it," said Selander.

West Virginia law allows Goodwin to serve until his replacement is sworn in. That could occur shortly after the election.

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