West Virginia voters may get to vote on a new senator two years earlier than expected as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said Wednesday that he now supports moving up the special election from November 2012 to replace the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
But Mr. Manchin, a Democrat who is widely reported to be eyeing a run for the seat, told reporters that he will wait for an opinion from the state's attorney general before deciding on how to fill the seat Byrd held for more than a half-century.
State Republicans, who have also pushed for an expedited vote, said Mr. Manchin should have gone further.
"We expected a proclamation, but he punted," said Troy Berman, state GOP party executive director.
State legal officials initially ruled that the deadline for a special election in November had passed and that Mr. Manchin could appoint a replacement to serve nearly 2 1/2 years in the seat.
The governor has said repeatedly that he would not appoint himself to the seat - a move that has proved politically disastrous for other governors. However, he opened the door Wednesday - the day after Byrd's burial - to push for a quicker election.
"I would highly consider that," Mr. Manchin said. "I do understand what's at stake here."
The confusion has had ramifications on Capitol Hill: Byrd's death deprived Senate Democrats of a key vote needed to break Republican filibusters, and such major legislation as President Obama's financial regulatory overhaul bill are hanging in the balance until a replacement is named.
Exactly how to interpret conflicting West Virginia statutes on filling the seat has been the subject of intense yet discreet debate in Charleston, out of respect for Byrd, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant appeared to put the issue to rest in a June 28, ruling that state law calls for the governor to appoint somebody to serve out the term until the next primary election cycle, which is in 2012. At that time, voters would simultaneously elect somebody to serve out the remaining five weeks of Mr. Byrd's expiring term and a senator to serve a full, six-year term.
However, voters, party officials and state media outlets have increasingly expressed a desire to hold a special election as quickly as possible.
Democrats privately said they did want a "placeholder" candidate to serve for roughly 29 months, while Republicans faced the near-certainty that Mr. Manchin would select a fellow Democrat to the position.
State Attorney General Darrell McGraw, a Democrat, is set to decide the question by the end of this week or early next week. He is widely expected to follow the governor's lead and review whether state laws permit a special election this fall.
Another scenario would be for the state Legislature to amend electoral laws during a special session that starts July 19, though the governor has vowed not to put the issue on the agenda.
"Either way, I think there's going to be a special election," said Neil Berch, an assistant professor at West Virginia University who specializes in state politics.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito has emerged as a top Republican candidate.
"The power of our vote should never be limited or delayed in selecting our elected officials, and 28 months is too long for any person to serve in an elective office through appointment," said Ms. Capito, the daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore.
Among the names reportedly on Mr. Manchin's shortlist for appointment to the Senate seat are Larry Puccio, the governor's former chief of staff; Nick Casey, who recently resigned as chairman to accept a federal judiciary appointment; state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin; and veteran Byrd staffer Anne Barth.
"We're working through the official channels, and that's the way it should be," said Derek Scarbro, executive director of the West Virginia Democratic Party.
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