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Angry Ventura Picks Independent

He names Dean Barkley to fill Wellstone's Senate seat, further clouding the issue of succession.

November 05, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura on Monday named an independent to replace the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, casting in doubt which party will control the Senate during the forthcoming lame-duck session of Congress.

Ventura's abrupt election-eve appointment of Dean Barkley, a fellow member of the Independence Party, means that the Senate could be divided among 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and two independents when it meets early next week to consider important year-end legislation, including appropriations for the current fiscal year, creation of a Department of Homeland Security and executive-branch and judicial nominations.

To fill the vacancy created by Wellstone's death in a plane crash Oct. 25, the prickly Ventura timed his announcement to begin as Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Walter F. Mondale were starting a one-on-one televised debate that omitted an Independence Party candidate.

The governor previously had indicated that he might delay an appointment until after the election but said he was angered at Republicans and Democrats and the media for shutting out third-party viewpoints.

"My appointee is a person of the highest integrity, has a keen sense of what is in the best interest of ordinary Minnesotans and will put the people's interest before the party's interest," Ventura said.

Barkley eventually will be succeeded by the winner of today's election for Wellstone's seat. But it was unclear Monday whether that would occur as soon as the election results are certified, an event scheduled on or soon after Nov. 19, or whether Barkley would serve out Wellstone's term, which ends Jan. 3.

Barkley, who ran for the Senate in 1996 on a third-party ticket, said Monday that he has not decided whether to throw his vote behind Democrats or Republicans or remain neutral. Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont lines up with the Democrats, giving them a reed-thin one-vote majority.

"I don't really care which party controls the U.S. Senate," Barkley said at a news conference in Minneapolis. "I could care less whether it's Democrats or Republicans. What I care about is what I can do for the state of Minnesota, and I will use my position the best I can to forward that principle."

Joking that he would caucus "by myself in a bathroom" if necessary, Barkley said he would try to pull transportation funding toward his state, a plum often available during year-end bargaining over the federal budget.

If the interim senator aligns with the Republicans, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi would automatically become the majority leader for at least a short time, attaining that position by virtue of the tie-breaking authority of Vice President Dick Cheney.

It would be the second time in the 107th Congress that Lott has held the post. He was majority leader for just over four months in early 2001, helping President Bush push through a $1.35-trillion, 10-year tax cut before Jeffords quit the Republican Party and shifted power to Democrats.

But this time, the consequences of temporary power shifts in the teeter-totter Senate are unclear. With so few days left in a stalemated Congress, bipartisan deal making likely will be required to get anything substantial done. Still, the twists could affect the legislation and nominations awaiting consideration.

Any power shift, though, is unlikely to change leadership or membership on Senate committees, because the chamber will not have time to reorganize them.

Lott, in an interview Monday with conservative talk radio host Oliver L. North, said he called to congratulate Barkley after Ventura announced the appointment.

"He's in the catbird's seat right now," Lott said, "and the decisions he makes will be very important."

The Republican leader said he would use the post, if Barkley tips the Senate to him, to push for passage of homeland security, port security and terrorism insurance legislation and to try to move stalled executive and judicial nominees. Also pending are a raft of appropriation bills to keep the government running.

Democrats, however, could filibuster to block Republican actions. Neither party has the 60 votes needed to shut down a filibuster.

Another scenario could lead to an almost immediate Republican takeover, even if Democrats win control of the Senate when the 108th Congress starts in January.

If Missouri voters today elect Republican Jim Talent as senator, he would oust the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Jean Carnahan, as soon as the results are certified and accepted by the Senate.

That possibility arises because Carnahan's husband, Mel, was elected to the Senate two years ago even though he had been killed in a plane crash three weeks previously, and his widow was appointed to fill the seat.

Today's election is for the remaining four years of Mel Carnahan's term, which means that the seat will be filled immediately by the winner. If Talent becomes the 50th Republican senator, the majority would swing to his party.

The set of circumstances that would enable Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D) to keep his title through the end of the year is equally dizzying.

Daschle would remain in his post if Barkley decides not to side with Republicans and if Talent fails to oust Carnahan. But there is another variable: the length of Barkley's service.

In an opinion issued by the office of Minnesota Atty. Gen. Mike Hatch, a Democrat, state law requires the winner of the Coleman-Mondale contest to be seated to fill Wellstone's term after the election results are made official. That would apparently occur on or shortly after Nov. 19. But Senate officials have issued a conflicting opinion.

Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Daschle, said Senate lawyers have said that Barkley's term would end on Jan. 3, not earlier.

If Coleman wins and the state attorney general's view prevails, Daschle could lose power. But, of course, he could regain it within weeks if today's vote goes well for the Democrats.

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