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As Obama Finalizes Cabinet, More Senate Seats in Question

December 17, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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Lawmakers are still grappling with how to fill the open Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama, while Obama's latest selections to his Cabinet will create more high-level vacancies. Stuart Rothenberg gives an update on how the seats might be filled.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President-elect Obama’s selection of Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar as his interior secretary has set off another scramble to fill a soon- to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat.

The Rocky Mountain State joins Illinois, New York, and Minnesota on the list of states still grappling with whom will represent them in Washington.

Here with some background in all this is Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Stu, thank you for being with us.

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let’s start with Colorado, since that’s the newest opening. The president did choose Ken Salazar, the senator from there, to be — to go to the Interior Department.

But, first, there’s been some interesting reaction to the fact that Salazar was chosen.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, there are some Democrats in town, Judy, who are not thrilled with the selection — not because they don’t like former congressman, now soon-to-be Interior Secretary Salazar. Not at all. That’s not the point, is that they thought he was really effective in the United States Senate. They were certain that he could be re-elected in two years.

And so taking him out of the Senate causes some headaches for Democratic operatives who now have to worry about a new candidate. Will he or she hold the seat? What kind of candidate will he or she be? And just taking Salazar out of the Senate, where he was very highly regarded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the choice is up to the governor of Colorado, the Democrat, Bill Ritter. What are the names that are in the running?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, we’re hearing four or five names that include Congressman Ed Perlmutter, Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

But the two names we hear most often are John Salazar, the congressman from Colorado’s Third District, the older brother of Ken Salazar, and John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver.

Both men have pretty good statewide name recognition. Certainly, the Salazar name following Salazar would be convenient for Democrats, although it raises some questions about too many Salazars running for office, the same office.

Hickenlooper was elected in 2003, re-elected in 2007, very popular, a businessman who started by owning a brew pub in Denver and that now has expanded statewide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting how many family names come up in all these Senate seats.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Absolutely.

Blagojevich case could drag on

Stu Rothenberg
Rothenberg Political Report
It now looks as though we're focused here on this impeachment process. Some people think it could be a matter of a few months. Some people are telling me many, many months, stretch well into 2009.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about Illinois. The State Supreme Court today turned down the request that it declare Governor Blagojevich unfit to serve. This one is taking a long time.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, Democrats would like to get this one out of the way any way they can, get it over quickly. That's why Lisa Madigan went to the Supreme Court and tried to get them to...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The attorney general.

STUART ROTHENBERG: ... the attorney general tried to get them to force Blagojevich from office. He doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There was talk about a special election. That has died down as soon as Democrats saw how excited Republicans were at the prospect of a special election.

Democrats said, well, maybe they actually could win this seat in a special election, and it would be very bloody. Lots of Democrats would run.

But it now looks as though we're focused here on this impeachment process. Some people think it could be a matter of a few months. Some people are telling me many, many months, stretch well into 2009. Right now, the process seems in paralysis.

There is a House committee that's trying to decide whether there are grounds for impeachment. Part of the problem is the constitution doesn't list grounds. It's very vague.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But right now, as long as that's the case, the governor, Blagojevich, has this in his hands, right?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right, he doesn't look like he's...

JUDY WOODRUFF: He can choose.

STUART ROTHENBERG: ... ready to leave. And the Democrats don't think he's going to make an appointment. He could actually make an appointment at any time.

It is a very sloppy situation. Of course, for Democrats, they worry this could drag on well into the middle of January, when the Congress is back and the Obama administration wants to get off fast. They don't have a Democratic senator in Illinois.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And need Democratic votes.

Questions swirl around Kennedy

Stu Rothenberg
Rothenberg Political Report
She didn't really respond to questions. We saw a very brief statement that she gave after the meeting. And so it was not an easy transition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, another really interesting, of course, case is New York, where Hillary Clinton stepping aside to serve as the secretary of state-designate. Caroline Kennedy has not only said she's interested; she was in upstate New York today talking to officials. Tell us about that.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, of course, there have been lots of early names here, Andrew Cuomo, a number of the members of Congress, Long Island Democratic leaders. But we're focused now on Caroline Kennedy, because she has indicated her interest.

She went upstate in her version of a listening tour. Remember Hillary Clinton went upstate when she was going to first run for the Senate or thinking about it?

Today was a little rough for Caroline Kennedy. Reporters in Syracuse yelled questions at her about her experience. "What do you have to say to New Yorkers who are worried that you're not experienced, you're not ready for the job? When was the last time you were in Syracuse?"

She didn't really respond to questions. We saw a very brief statement that she gave after the meeting. And so it was not an easy transition.

But she has some time here to demonstrate that she's truly interested, that she's knowledgeable enough about New York and knowledgeable enough about issues. And so she has some time, but today was kind of a rocky start.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are there other names that are seriously in the mix at this point...

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I spoke to some...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... or is she considered so far ahead?

STUART ROTHENBERG: No, I spoke to some influential Democrats today who say it's fair to characterize her as the frontrunner, but not the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.

Andrew Cuomo's name is still circulating. Tom Suozzi, a Nassau County executive, is mentioned. There are a whole bunch of congressmen, Kirsten Gillibrand, Brian Higgins...

STUART ROTHENBERG: ... congresspeople, yes. Upstate folks seem to want an upstate Democrat picked. But Mayor Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, Mayor Bloomberg is really pushing Caroline Kennedy.

'Never-ending recount'

Stu Rothenberg
Rothenberg Political Report
The canvass board is still going over votes that have been challenged either by the Franken campaign, Al Franken campaign, the Democrat, or Norm Coleman, the Republican campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting in and of itself.

Quickly to Minnesota, the never-ending recount.

STUART ROTHENBERG: The latest, as of 3:30 this afternoon, the canvas board -- the court had Norm Coleman ahead by 350 votes. But there were two big issues.

The canvass board is still going over votes that have been challenged either by the Franken campaign, Al Franken campaign, the Democrat, or Norm Coleman, the Republican campaign.

In addition, there were a whole set of additional ballots, absentee ballots that were incorrectly cast aside by local counties when they looked at these absentees. They said, no, they don't qualify. They weren't signed. They didn't have the right date.

But it appears that a significant number of them actually are qualified and should have been counted. And so there were two issues here: votes that were cast where the marks on the ballots are unclear, as well as these absentee ballots that weren't counted that maybe should have been.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we're a little bit closer, but we're not there?

STUART ROTHENBERG: It still could be a few weeks here, because there will be legal challenges and still lots of questions here have to be answered as to what's going to be counted and how they're going to be counted.

Maintaining Senate diversity

Stu Rothenberg
Rothenberg Political Report
I think there's some pressure in each of these states. Let's face it: This is a significant loss of either a woman or a Hispanic or an African-American, and so there is some pressure within the Democratic Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Stu, and quickly, three of these seats that we're talking about being vacated by either a woman -- Hillary Clinton leaving the Senate -- or a minority, of course, the president-elect, Barack Obama, the only African-American in the Senate, and then Senator Salazar in Colorado.

Is there pressure on any of the people making decisions to replace them to keep those seats in the hands of women or minorities?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think there's some pressure in each of these states. Let's face it: This is a significant loss of either a woman or a Hispanic or an African-American, and so there is some pressure within the Democratic Party.

And I talked to a Democratic strategist today who said, you know, these kinds of people do make stronger arguments to their colleagues. They can talk firsthand about their experiences and their goals, so it's a consideration.

But the people I talked to also said these are three individual cases where the choices will depend on a variety of things, not merely gender or race or ethnicity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu Rothenberg, thank you very much.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Sure.