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Republican Party lawmakers in Kentucky are eliminating the Democratic governor’s role in filling U.S. Senate vacancies

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – Republican lawmakers in Kentucky on Friday removed the Democratic governor from any role that would fill future vacancies in the U.S. Senate – a move that supporters said was not related to recent investigations into the health of the state’s senior senator, the Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

The supermajority Republican legislature easily overruled the administration. Andy Beshear‘s veto of the measure. The legislation calls for a special election to fill any vacancies in the Bluegrass State Senate. The winner of the special election would hold the seat for the remainder of the unexpired term.

“The people should always decide by election who is a United States senator,” House Majority Leader Steven Rudy, a Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor, said during a brief House debate Friday.

The Senate succession bill passed the Legislature at a time of impending transition for the 82-year-old McConnell. In February, the venerable senator from Kentucky announced that he will step down from his longtime leadership position in the Senate in November.

Aides said McConnell’s announcement was not related to his health. The senator suffered a concussion from a fall last year and two public episodes in which his face briefly froze while he spoke.

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How a Senate vacancy is filled takes on greater importance at a time when the Senate is deeply divided along partisan lines. In 2021, Republican lawmakers in Kentucky ended the governor’s independent power to appoint a successor. Now they have completely barred the governor from filling a vacancy.

The Senate succession bill was among a series of measures rejected by the governor. Republican lawmakers spent much of Friday overriding those vetoes.

They overrode the veto of a criminal law bill that would impose harsher penalties for a range of crimes. Beshear said it would saddle the state with significantly higher incarceration costs and criminalize homelessness by creating an “unlawful camping offense.”

Lawmakers also overrode a veto of a measure to promote nuclear energy in coal-producing Kentucky.

Beshear said he supports an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that includes nuclear energy, but objected to how members would be selected on an advisory board that would promote nuclear energy development. Many of them would be appointed by private sector groups, bypassing the appointment power of the governor or other state constitutional officials, Beshear said.

On the Senate succession bill, McConnell spoke positively about it during a recent radio interview in Louisville, calling it a good idea to let voters decide on the successor if a vacancy ever arises.

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McConnell says he will serve his seventh term in the Senate, adding in the same interview on WHAS-AM: “I don’t know how many times I can say that. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” He gave no indication as to whether he will seek re-election in 2026, but McConnell has continued to raise campaign funds for himself.

Rudy previously said the legislation has nothing to do with McConnell, but instead reflects his policy position on how to fill an empty Senate seat.

Rudy has said he has been talking about changing the way a Senate vacancy is filled for more than a decade, since the conviction of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for crimes including trying to win an appointment to the old Barack Obama’s Senate seat to be sold. Rudy’s district in far western Kentucky borders Illinois.

Beshear, who won re-election last year over a McConnell protégé, noted that lawmakers had changed their minds for the second time in recent years on how to fill a Senate vacancy.

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“Prior to these maneuvers, the same system had been in place since 1942,” Beshear said in his veto message. “This government deserves the same authority as previous governments.”

The criminal justice bill that Republican lawmakers supported in their override vote would make a host of changes to the state’s criminal code, increasing many current penalties and creating new offenses.

A notable feature of the bill is the introduction of a ‘three strikes’ penalty, which would lock criminals away for the rest of their lives after they commit a third violent crime. It adds to the list of violent crimes that require offenders to serve the majority of their sentences before being eligible for release.

Supporters portrayed the bill as a necessary policy change that would do more to hold criminals accountable and make communities safer. Opponents warned that the measure would come with a hefty price tag for taxpayers, without the assurance that the tougher approach would reduce crime.

The budget note accompanying the legislation said the overall financial impact was “indeterminable” but would likely lead to a “significant increase in expenditures, primarily due to higher incarceration costs.”

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