BOSTON -- Joe Manchin is having an interesting weekend. He's in Boston to become chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association
. But in about a week, if all goes well, West Virginia's Democratic governor will be announcing his plans to try for another job: U.S. senator.
In the wake of Sen. Robert Byrd's death, Manchin has called a special session of the Legislature in Charleston to clarify the state's convoluted succession laws
. The session starts at noon Thursday and he predicted that lawmakers would wrap it up by next Sunday at the earliest. "This is me hoping," Manchin said in an interview with Politics Daily. "That's in a perfect situation, and that makes it very difficult." Ideally, he added, people will heed the advice of election-law experts and not politicize the process.
Until the law is rewritten and signed, there will be no interim senator named, and no declarations of candidacy for November.
Right now state law seems to suggest the governor should appoint a senator to serve for two and a-half years, almost to the end of Byrd's unexpired term. But the secretary of state and attorney general have differing interpretations. The law is likely to be revised in a way that allows the state to schedule a Senate primary in September and a special election in November. Then Manchin would name an interim senator to serve who would represent the state and also provide Democrats
with another critical vote on Capitol Hill
until voters choose a successor to Byrd.
A lot is hanging on how fast the West Virginia Legislature completes its work, including the fate of more than 1 million long-term unemployed who have run out of benefits
. In Washington, Senate Democrats have failed several times to win an extension of the benefits, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
says he won't try again until Manchin names someone -- a Democrat -- to Byrd's seat.
Manchin intends to make his own political plans known at that point and said he is 'highly likely" to run for the open Senate seat. He also said he would continue to serve as governor while running for the Senate, and would "absolutely" continue as chairman of the governors association. He assumes the chairman post Sunday and said he'll highlight higher education
-- in particular how to make sure more people finish their training and degree work.
A Senate candidacy "doesn't change anything" in terms of keeping his jobs as governor and governors association chairman, Manchin said, "because you're talking about a very short time frame here. You're talking probably a primary in September, and then a general in November, so within two months you do one, and in another two months you do the other." That is, if you're fortunate enough to win the primary, he added.
Manchin said it's long been widely known that his state's succession laws are unclear. He said Reid and others in Washington have been "very kind" in understanding why state leaders are not rushing right now and why they didn't clarify the laws in the past. Nobody wants a court challenge to either an appointed or elected senator, he said, and furthermore, "if ever there was a stickler for doing it by the rules and doing it right," it would be Byrd.
As for letting the uncertainties in the law fester, that also goes back to Byrd. "Out of respect and out of our love for him, while he was growing older and frail, we never went back and tried to change it because I thought it would be disrespectful and the Legislature thought it would have been disrespectful," Manchin said. "It would have been like a death watch. You're out there changing the succession in hope -- we just had too much love for him. That was just a very delicate situation."
Manchin said he has several people in mind that he has spoken with about potentially serving as interim senators. "I got a lot of people who would say yes," he said. "Saying yes is not the problem. The problem is basically we want to make sure that the law's clear, and then I make a selection, and then I'll have -- my own political intention will be third. Mine comes last."
Although the governor speaks affectionately of the National Governors Association as "the only truly nonpartisan political institution that's left in America" and calls Washington a "toxic environment," he left little doubt as to his intentions.