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Other views: GOP ploy is about Heitkamp, not democracy

Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, is right about one thing. When it comes to his House Bill 1181, which would change the way North Dakota fills vacant U.S. Senate seats, "the reason for this bill is very simple."...

Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, is right about one thing. When it comes to his House Bill 1181, which would change the way North Dakota fills vacant U.S. Senate seats, “the reason for this bill is very simple.”
But Streyle’s wrong about the “very simple” reason he ascribes - namely, his and his party’s supposedly deep desire to let North Dakota voters and only North Dakota voters choose a replacement U.S. senator.
Instead, the real reason behind the proposed change is naked, partisan politics.
It was partisan politics in 2004, when Democratic legislators in Massachusetts hammered through the same change using the same arguments that North Dakota Republicans are offering today.
It was partisan politics in 2009, when - in one of the most brazen flip-flops of all time - the Democratic legislators in Massachusetts reversed themselves, bringing back the system for filling Senate vacancies that they’d changed only five years earlier.
And it’s partisan politics today, when North Dakota Republicans’ timing, decisions and arguments on this issue convict the lawmakers of the same hypocrisy in the first degree.
That’s not an electric-chair offense in American politics. But it sure cranks up the voltage of voters’ cynicism - and in Massachusetts, the spark of anger that resulted shocked the political establishment nationwide, as North Dakotans of both parties will recall.
Reason 1 why North Dakota Republicans might want to rethink their strategy is the crowd they’re now running with. For in 2004, the Massachusetts Democrat who most loudly wanted to “let the people decide” was U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy - not the kind of company Republicans usually want to keep.
Recall that in 2004, Massachusetts’ other U.S. senator, John Kerry, was running for president. Recall as well that at the time, midnight-blue Massachusetts had that rarest of creatures: a Republican governor, Mitt Romney.
That meant Romney, under the system then in place, would get to name Kerry’s Senate replacement should Kerry win the White House. Can’t have that, Massachusetts Democrats decided.
And so, at Kennedy’s urging but cloaked in high-minded rhetoric, the Massachusetts Legislature set up a special-election system to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, taking away the governor’s power to appoint interim senators.
Sound familiar, North Dakotans?
It gets better.
Fast forward to 2009. In Washington, Senate Democrats had captured another rare bird: a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority. The all-important vote on Obamacare loomed.
But Sen. Kennedy was dying of brain cancer. Dems knew that when he died, Massachusetts would have only one senator until the special election, thanks to the 2004 reform.
That would have left Senate Democrats with 59 votes.
Can’t have that, they decided.
So, again at the urging of Kennedy himself and again cloaked in rhetoric, the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts Legislature - this time, aided and abetted by a Democratic governor - gave the power to appoint interim senators back to the governor.
“We rate this a full Flop” on the Flip-O-Meter, Politifact.com declared.
To their credit, Massachusetts Dems did offer one good argument; more about that in a minute.
For now, recall what happened next.
On Kennedy’s death, a Democratic interim senator went to Washington. He served his purpose, casting the 60th “Yes” vote on Obamacare.
Then when Massachusetts held its special election a few weeks later, voters chose Scott Brown - the state’s first Republican Senate victor in 38 years.
It was a political shot heard ‘round the world. Some pundits called it “the Second American Tea Party.”
And anger over the Massachusetts Democrats’ shameless ploys to keep their U.S. Senate seat had played a huge role.
Now, about that Democratic argument in 2009 - the one the lawmakers used to return to interim appointments:
“Massachusetts needs two senators!” the Democrats said.
You know something?
They were right.
By any measure, a state loses out when it can cast only one vote in the U.S. Senate. And that’s true whether the vacancy lasts for weeks, months or more than a year.
So: Will North Dakota Republicans acknowledge that fact?
HB 1181 sets up a special-election system to fill Senate vacancies. That’s a reasonable change; right now, the statewide vote to fill an empty Senate seat isn’t held until the next primary or general election.
But will the GOP let the governor appoint an interim senator until Special Election Day?
Or will they slash North Dakota’s representation to only one U.S. senator for some months (as HB 1181 commands), solely to prevent the governor from filling a Senate vacancy?
If the latter is the case, then North Dakotans will know that HB 1181 isn’t about the state or its residents.
Instead, it’s about raw politics - in this case, the thwarting of Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who’s considering a run for governor.
And we’ll know “the reason for this bill is very simple” after all.

The Grand Forks Herald’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.

Related Topics: HEIDI HEITKAMP
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