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What Does Harry Reid Want?

Chris Cillizza’s characterization is that Harry Reid does not want a special election in Illinois, instead preferring that Rod Blagojevich vacate office so that his successor, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, is free to appoint a Democrat to the Senate. That is certainly one reasonable way to read Reid’s letter, which I’ve reproduced below:

Dear Governor Blagojevich:

We write to insist that you step down as Governor of Illinois and under no circumstance make an appointment to fill the vacant Illinois Senate seat. In light of your arrest yesterday on alleged federal corruption charges related to that Senate seat, any appointment by you would raise serious questions.

It is within the authority of the Illinois legislature to remove your power to make this appointment by providing for a special election. But a decision by you to resign or to step aside under Article V of the Illinois Constitution would be the most expeditious way for a new Senator to be chosen and seated in a manner that would earn the confidence of the people of Illinois and all Americans. We consider it imperative that a new senator be seated as soon as possible so that Illinois is fully represented in the Senate as the important work of the 111th Congress moves forward.

Please understand that should you decide to ignore the request of the Senate Democratic Caucus and make an appointment we would be forced to exercise our Constitutional authority under Article I, Section 5, to determine whether such a person should be seated.

We do not prejudge the outcome of the criminal charges against you or question your constitutional right to contest those charges. But for the good of the Senate and our nation, we implore you refrain from making an appointment to the Senate.


Harry Reid

Clearly, it does Democrats absolutely no good to have Blagojevich remain in office. If Blagojevich tries to appoint a senator, the Democrats have a public relations and legal mess on their hands. If he doesn’t try and appoint a senator, the Democrats are temporarily out a Senate seat, and one additional vote short of the majority they’d need to break a filibuster, which would remain at 60 votes. (Exception: if Minnesota also can’t seat a senator because of the recount, the cloture threshold goes down to 59 votes). Meanwhile, the Illinois legislature will presumably try and impeach Blagojevich, which will be … well, a lot of fun to watch, but not the kind of distraction the Democrats want. The double-dip of the impeachment proceedings and the federal indictment could give Blago more face time than any crook since O.J. Simpson.

Still, I don’t necessarily read this letter as Reid being opposed to a special election (although Cillizza may have additional information above and beyond the context the letter provides). True, Reid says he considers it “imperative that a new senator be seated as soon as possible”. But Blagojevich’s continuing presence not only threatens the Democrats’ ability to make an appointment — it also impairs the special election, because Illinois has to pass a new law to get one, and Blago could sit on that bill for 60 days before the state’s pocket veto provision kicks in. That would take us to at least mid-February before the state could start to make provisions for a special election. Also, an appointment and a special election are not necessarily mutually exclusive: Illinois could pass a fast special elections law, but provide for a gubernatorial appointment in the meantime.

Reid also says that he wants a “Senator to be chosen and seated in a manner that would earn the confidence of the people of Illinois and all Americans”. Now, from my vantage point, a special election would create far more confidence in the new Senator than any gubernatorial appointment could. (And by the way, while there are obviously special circumstances pertaining to this Illinois seat, I think the whole idea of gubernatorial appointments to the Senate is something that should be done away with.)

Perhaps Reid’s vantage point differs. But if so, he’s guilty of playing smallball. Presently, Obama is very popular; even if the Democrats have only 57 seats, Obama’s going to get the Snowes and the Collinses and the Specters and the Voinoviches to line up with him more often than not for the next few months. When Obama is going to need those extra votes is more in the 6-18 month window, when the era of good feelings may abate as the public realizes the recession isn’t likely to be a short one. But by that point, Illinois will have long since had its special election.

Of course, the Democrats might lose that special election; Republican Mark Kirk, who just won re-election in a D+4 seat, now says he’ll run in the special, and will make for a reasonable opponent. But even if Kirk were to win — and he’s perhaps the only Illinois Republican who could — the consequences are hardly so terrible for Democrats, as the seat will be up for election again in 2010, and as Kirk has been among the most moderate Republicans in the House. You think he’s going to have the wherewithal to filibuster key pieces of legislation from an ├╝berpopular President from his home state? I certainly don’t — not if Kirk values his political future. Whenever Obama gets a Snowe or a Specter to line up with his legislation — and he’ll need at least one or two of those votes to get his agenda passed in the first place — he’ll in all likelihood be able to count on Kirk’s support as well. Kirk might even campaign on promising to support the President on key pieces of his agenda.

By contrast, if the Illinois Democrats decided to backtrack on the special election, they’d risk losing to someone like Kirk in the six-year term that begins in 2010. They might also improve the Republicans’ chances of winning the Illinois governorship, which is also up for renewal that year. Finally, they might do some damage to the Democrats at the national level.

Whatever his intentions with the Blagojevich letter, I don’t think Reid should be spending one moment of his time lobbying against a special election. It’s what the democracy needs — and perhaps what the Democrats do too.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.