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After McConnell news, Ky. Governor stripped of power to fill Senate vacancies under proposed bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to reporters at the Capitol Tuesday.
AP
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

A state House committee advanced a bill to fully strip the Kentucky governor’s power to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy, just a day after McConnell announced he will step down from his Senate leadership position.

A Kentucky House committee advanced a bill Thursday to fully strip the Democratic governor’s power to fill a vacancy in the state’s U.S. Senate seat — one day after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced he will step down from his leadership role this year.

The Republican-dominated state legislature had already passed a law in 2021 to shift such power away from the governor. Previously, the governor had the sole power to appoint someone to fill a Senate vacancy, but the new law requires the governor to choose from three nominees selected by the party of the senator leaving office, in advance of a special election.

House Bill 622 that passed out of committee Thursday would further remove the power of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in the event of such a vacancy, eliminating the governor's appointment power. Instead, the governor would have to call for a special election to fill the seat, under the same process in place in the event of a U.S. House seat vacancy.

Republican House Floor Leader Steven Rudy of Paducah said in committee his bill is more “within the spirit” of the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution than the current law.

Senators used to be selected by their state’s legislature, but a 1913 amendment states that a special election shall be called in the event of a U.S. Senate vacancy. It also gives state legislatures the ability to give governors the authority to make temporary appointments to fill that vacancy.

“God forbid we have any vacancy in a U.S. senator, I think that the people would want to decide who their senator was,” Rudy said.

McConnell announced on the Senate floor Wednesday he will step down as Senate GOP leader when his term in that role ends in November, though he added he will stay in office until at least January 2027, when his Senate term ends. He has not yet indicated if he will run for reelection in 2026.

Republican leaders in the Kentucky legislature expressed some surprise after McConnell’s announcement Wednesday, as they had just hosted a campaign fundraiser for him a week earlier.

That fundraiser was on February 20, the day before HB 622 was filed.

Beshear vetoed the previous bill to dilute his power to fill a vacancy, arguing that it violated both the state and federal Constitution. He pointed out that Section 152 of the Kentucky Constitution states a governor “shall” fill vacancies in offices for the state at large with appointments.

After McConnell had multiple health scares last year — including freezing up at two press conferences until aides and colleagues stepped in to assist him — Beshear refused to directly answer whether he would follow that law in the event of a Senate vacancy, or challenge it in court.

Spokespersons for Beshear did not immediately return a request for comment on whether he thinks the bill is constitutional, but the governor did slam the bill as a partisan effort to “tear away” his power at his Thursday press conference.

“If we are just dominated by trying to create a result of what letter someone would have behind their name, if appointed, then we are not performing or engaging in good government,” Beshear said.

Governors in 35 states are allowed to fill Senate vacancies without any restrictions. Only four states do not allow a governor to make an appointment, leaving the seat vacant until a special election.

Addressing questions about the constitutionality of the bill, Rudy said he hoped the law would be followed and not challenged in court should his bill pass.

“I think this is well within the spirit of and follows directly the 17th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which trumps the state constitution in matters,” Rudy said.

Rudy did not mention McConnell in his remarks, but joked that he could see a scenario where “one of our United States senators accidentally gets elected president of the United States, and that would trigger this law at that point, as well.”

After the vote, Rudy told reporters his bill was “not a conspiracy,” as he proposed the same bill in 2021, preferring it over the current “confusing and convoluted” vacancy law. He said his proposal was spurred by the case of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of public corruption for his actions to fill a Senate vacancy there.

“I just don't think the governor should be involved in this, because the people should be able to elect a United States senator, should there be a vacancy, just like they can elect them through the normal process,” Rudy said.

The 2021 law was passed at the direct urging of McConnell, a little more than a year after Beshear was elected, unseating a Republican.

This story has been updated.

Capitol Reporter Sylvia Goodman contributed to this story.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.