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Senate Seats May Not Get Filled This Year

Manu Raju takes a look today at the trouble the Senate is having forming committees without knowing what the full makeup of the body will be. Without that knowledge -- the result of the ongoing recount in Minnesota in the scandal in Illinois -- assigning committee seats involves some guess work. 

Not only will the number of Democratic seats have profound implications on Obama’s ability to move his agenda on the Senate floor, but bills are drafted, shaped and sometimes defeated in committees. The number of seats each party holds on committees are intended to reflect the overall partisan breakdown of the upper chamber.

The Senate’s final partisan breakdown may not be known for months, but Democrats will hold as few as 57 seats and as many as 59 seats in the 111th Congress. According to historical precedent, which negotiators rely on to set ratios, that can mean the difference between a two-seat majority on some panels and a six-seat majority on others.

“To an extent, yes, there could be a big difference between 57 and 59 seats,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “But that is still being resolved.”

Just how long will it be until all of the seats are filled? Paul Green, a political scientist at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, sees no obvious end in sight. “I think this could go on for a couple of months,” he said. And by holding up the process, Green noted, Blagojevich gains leverage. He could then exchange his resignation for a better outcome. One scenario has Blagojevich continue to receive his governor’s salary but appoints Lt. Governor Pat Quinn as temporary governor. That would allow Blagojevich to continue to pay for his criminal defense and allow Quinn to appoint a Senator.

“Getting rid of the governor is the number one priority. Picking a U.S. senator is number two,” said Green. Guessing when that’ll happen, he said, is futile. “You can never predict what happens in Springfield,” he said.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman and a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that Springfield is looking for some type of compromise to “weatherize the government [because] the state can’t float bonds and it’s near bankruptcy,” he said.

Simpson agreed with Green that democrats had little appetite for a special election, not that “they could lose under this current cloud.”

Though the matter could be resolved quickly by a Blagojevich resignation, any other means – including impeachment – could take weeks. “I don’t expect this to be resolved until late January,” he said.

David Schultz, a political scientist who teaches election law at the University of Minnesota law school, said that if all goes smoothly and nobody mounts a serious legal challenge, the canvassing board could declare a winner there shortly before Christmas, in time for the candidate to make it to Washington by the start of the January session.

Don’t count on it. “It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the loser challenges,” said Schultz. The loser’s goal would be to enjoin the canvassing board from certifying a winner, but Schultz noted that the board generally announces and certifies the winner at the same meeting.

If the board doesn’t certify a winner by the time the Senate convenes, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, can appoint the senator. “Coleman’s backup strategy clearly could be, drag it out long enough and he gets the appointment,” said Schultz.

If Pawlenty appoints a senator and the courts later certify a different winner, Minnesota election law doesn’t speak to how that conflict would be resolved. The canvas board’s review of challenged ballots begins Tuesday and is expected to be completed by Friday.

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