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Questions Linger Over Unresolved Senate Seats

December 15, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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Weeks after the election, the Senate faces vacancies in three states, including the unresolved race in Minnesota. The Hotline's Amy Walter discusses questions remaining possible Senate successors for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
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GWEN IFILL: The Senate vacancy drama in Illinois is playing out in three other states: New York, Minnesota and, to a lesser extent, Delaware.

But only in Illinois does the president-elect play a role. The Obama transition said they have not been involved in anything inappropriate concerning the Illinois governor, but there remain more questions than answers.

Here to tackle a few of them is Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Welcome back, Amy.

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Walk us through a few of these unanswered questions involving the Blagojevich-Obama connection or lack thereof.

AMY WALTER: Well, there seems to be a lot in terms of — there are open questions just in this point about how the seat gets filled.

In terms of whether or not there is an Obama-Blagojevich question, as you pointed out, the transition this afternoon sent out a statement saying that the Obama campaign has looked through, has been very exhaustive in talking to anybody on the staff and their connections or their conversations with Blagojevich, or anybody on his staff about this open vacancy. They said, quote, “His staff was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff.”

GWEN IFILL: Which, to be clear, is not saying there haven’t been conversations.

AMY WALTER: Correct.

GWEN IFILL: Just no — I guess we’re left to infer that no quid pro quos were discussed.

AMY WALTER: Correct, because we — over the weekend, it was revealed that Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chief of staff to the president-elect, had given at one point a list of candidates that were said to be preferred by Obama for this seat.

But, again, there’s never been any indication, either by the affidavit or by anybody involved in this process, that there was anything involved, as you said, as a quid pro quo.

GWEN IFILL: And we won’t get this full report on exactly what the contacts were until next week, apparently, because the U.S. attorney has asked them not to release it.

AMY WALTER: Right.

Special Illinois election likely

GWEN IFILL: But I wonder if that means now the focus turns back to the state legislature, which is now trying to move toward impeachment rather than a special election?

AMY WALTER: Well, it's really unclear what's going to happen now. It seems like there are two different debates. The first is, what happens to Rod Blagojevich? Does he resign? Is he impeached?

And with that, of course, comes -- he loses all of his power, and then we have to get next to how this Senate seat is filled.

The next piece is this impeachment process takes a long time or it's not clear that he's going to resign. Is there a way that somebody else appoints somebody to this seat or that there's a special election?

There was talk today in Chicago that Blagojevich may be interested in making some sort of deal that he's willing to, while he's still in office, he's willing to give up the power to appoint if it means that there's a special election that takes place, i.e., "I'm not going to give up my power to appoint so that somebody else can do that." This will have to be taken place by a special election.

GWEN IFILL: But it doesn't seem like he has a lot of leverage there. There are no state or national political leaders who are standing by Rod Blagojevich in all of this.

AMY WALTER: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. So it's just a question now of, how quickly can this seat be filled?

And what you're hearing right now from Republicans is they're trying to create some sort of groundswell to say, "The only way to do this is by a special election. It doesn't matter if the lieutenant governor appoints it. It doesn't matter if we find the cleanest person in the world to do this. There's still a taint associated"...

GWEN IFILL: No matter how many millions of dollars it might cost to do that.

AMY WALTER: No matter how many millions of dollars it might cost to do that. And we don't know how long it will take. And will there be then the state of Illinois without representation for months or so?

Minn. Senate race still undecided

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about a couple of other states where it turns out that nothing has been settled. In Minnesota, nothing has been settled.

AMY WALTER: No.

GWEN IFILL: What is happening there?

AMY WALTER: It continues -- every day, there seems like there's some sort of drama that unfolds. And for those folks sitting in Minnesota -- I know they're concerned about a lot of things, mostly including the weather right now. But if they're interested in the soap opera, this has been quite appealing.

There was a point at which, for example, ballots have been lost and found. There were 133 ballots in a Minneapolis precinct they just can't find. They searched a warehouse for a weekend to do that. There are questions about absentee ballots, whether or not they're going to be valid or not.

What we know for a fact is the canvassing board, there's a bipartisan board appointed by the secretary of state that meets tomorrow. They're going to go through these challenged ballots, ballots that are still questionable.

By Friday, they are supposed to come up with a winner of this election. Most people assume, though, that this is not going to be that simple.

GWEN IFILL: ... the end of that.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

New York Senate seat coveted

GWEN IFILL: New York state, today we hear that Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the slain president, the niece of the ailing senator and obviously the inheritor of the Kennedy name, is now interested and has expressed interest to the governor in succeeding Hillary Clinton.

AMY WALTER: This is, indeed, true, as has pretty much every other person I think living in New York who is elected to office. This is the prize.

And, you know, some people are being a little more subtle about it. Some people are being more upfront. What's interesting will be to see just how much of an impact the Blagojevich case has on Paterson's choice.

GWEN IFILL: How so?

AMY WALTER: To say there's nothing -- obviously, there's nothing untoward about any of these folks in New York expressing to the governor their interest in serving out that seat. But I think what has happened in Illinois, the suggestions being that, when you have governors basically being lobbied to fill an appointment position, this takes that person further away from the people.

GWEN IFILL: And a governor has never been lobbied before for an appointment?

AMY WALTER: Never been lobbied before, ever, ever, ever. You're wondering, maybe it -- for voters, they may not see this as a connection because they know that, for example, this does go on all the time.

But I think what we're seeing in a couple of cases, whether we had in the case of Delaware, for example, a lot of frustration still in that state from folks who thought that the governor's decision to appoint a caretaker for that seat was seen as basically a decision to hold on to that seat, serve as a placeholder for Sen. Biden's son, who's now serving in Iraq...

GWEN IFILL: And the name of the placeholder is...

AMY WALTER: Is Ted Kaufman.

GWEN IFILL: ... Ted Kaufman, a friend of Biden's for a long time.

AMY WALTER: That's right. That's right. So this idea that this really is about political horse-trading, people who have power, people who have influence, but is this the right way to get somebody into the United States Senate?

Should we instead be looking at the decision that some states have made to completely get rid of the ability for governors to appoint them? It just goes to a special election.

Caroline Kennedy expresses interest

GWEN IFILL: Is it assumed because Caroline Kennedy is a Kennedy that she could not possibly have any other qualities that qualify her for this office?

AMY WALTER: Right, and this is the United States Senate. Right, there are people from all walks of life in the United States Senate.

We are talking about people who are coming to the Senate who've had no legislative experience at all or who say they come from a business background and that makes them accessible.

So I think that this idea that there's not a qualification there...

GWEN IFILL: But what do we know about her experience? She...

AMY WALTER: Well, we know about her experience, obviously, as a lawyer, as somebody who has written a lot about constitutional issues. But she's somebody who's been very reticent -- I think that is the issue, really, that is the most curious is, until this year, this is somebody who has not sought out the limelight. This is not somebody who has wanted to sort of carry on that mantle and that the process of running for the Senate, especially in a place like New York, requires a lot of on-the-ground going to those bean suppers and chicken dinners all over the state.

And it means running in 2010 and then running again in 2012, because from 2010 to 2012 is just serving the remainder of Hillary Clinton's term. For a full term of her own, it's another election.

GWEN IFILL: But quickly and politically, does it hurt her at all to have supported Barack Obama in a state like New York where Hillary Clinton is from? Does she not get Hillary Clinton's support to succeed her?

AMY WALTER: Well, that's a very interesting question, because, obviously, coming out as strongly as did the Kennedy family would suggest that they might not be as interested in that. At the same time, if you are Governor Paterson, if you're other Democrats in the state, the first thing you're looking for is, who can hold this seat in the next election?

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter of the Hotline, thank you very much.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.