Topeka — For 80 years, governors have had the power to fill vacant U.S. Senate seats.
Now, with U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback seeking the GOP presidential nomination, Republican legislators want to make sure Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius doesn't decide who would fill his seat for the following two years if he's successful in 2008.
Republicans used their majority Thursday to push a bill through the Kansas Senate. The vote was 25-15 and sent the measure to the House, which also has a GOP majority.
The bill calls for each party to nominate a candidate who would square off in a statewide election. Any political party that received 5 percent of the vote in the last gubernatorial election would be allowed to place a candidate on the ballot.
Backers of overturning the current, long-standing practice said it isn't about Brownback or Sebelius, but fairness.
"This takes the partisan aspect out of it," said Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha. "This is about allowing the people of Kansas to have a say in filling a vacancy in the U.S. Senate."
The bill also would take away the governor's power to fill vacancies in the state treasurer's and insurance commissioner's offices. Instead, as proposed by Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, the party to which either belonged would have a special primary to fill the job.
It would take a constitutional change to wrest the power from the governor to fill vacancies in the attorney general's or secretary of state's office, however.
Most of the debate centered on filling U.S. Senate vacancies.
Some Republicans believe Brownback might give up his Senate seat in pursuing the presidency or if he becomes the vice presidential nominee. In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole resigned to run as the GOP nominee against President Bill Clinton, who won a second term.
When Dole resigned, Gov. Bill Graves, also a Republican, appointed Lt. Gov. Sheila Frahm to the post. Brownback beat her in the August primary that year, then won the general election. He won a full six-year term in 1998 and re-election in 2004.
Republicans said the change would keep Sebelius from appointing a fellow Democrat to the Senate, which they believe would go against voters' wishes, given Brownback's election victories.
They've even speculated that Sebelius might appoint herself, or that she might resign so that Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson could become governor and appoint her. However, she has repeatedly said she's not interested in another political job and intends to serve her entire four-year term as governor.
Democrats said there is nothing wrong with the current process.
"If the only reason for doing it now is that it could be a change in the balance of power, how could it not be a power grab?" asked Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.
But history makes the Sebelius-as-senator scenario plausible, even if it's unlikely.
In January 1957, William Smith had resigned as chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court because of ill health. Gov. Fred Hall, a Republican who had lost the 1956 primary, resigned eight days before his term ended and the new governor immediately appointed him to the court. Smith had been a power in the Kansas GOP; Hall was a protege. The events became known collectively as "The Triple Play."