CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An impasse among state lawmakers over how to fill West Virginia's vacant U.S. Senate seat may force Gov. Joe Manchin to call a special election on his own.
Talks between Democrats and Republicans in the House of Delegates and state Senate collapsed Sunday evening on the fourth day of a special legislative session.
With time running out for a special primary to be held before the Nov. 2 general election, Manchin may proclaim an election. That decision may come today.
If he does so, his authority may be tested in court. Current election law is ambiguous, although the state attorney general has given Manchin the go-ahead to call the election to fill Robert Byrd's unexpired term.
Manchin called lawmakers to town last week, but disagreements between him and elected officials in both parties derailed the process.
Both the House and Senate have passed differing versions of the needed bills, but Republicans and some Democrats were able to keep the law from taking effect immediately, a decision that takes a two-thirds super majority. Normally, a bill is effective 90 days from passage.
The failure to get the bill to take effect now rendered the bill useless because of the tight timeline needed to hold a primary this summer before the Nov. 2 election.
Jim Pitrolo, the governor's legislative director, blamed the "total breakdown" on Republicans. He said the main sticking point was language in the bill that gave leeway to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to manage the election. Republicans said the leeway was, in fact, granting Tennant unconstitutional authority.
And, Republicans pointed out, some Democrats also voted to delay the effective date of the bill.
But, like Pitrolo, House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, blamed Republicans.
"The entire bloc voted against it," he said. "It looked partisan to me."
Besides concern over the leeway for Tennant, there was also a push to make it clear in the law that a candidate could run both in the general election and for the vacant Senate seat at the same time, which would ensure Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., could enter the race.
"We just cannot meet those demands," Thompson said.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said the partisan charge was "entirely false," especially because Democrats helped hold up the legislation.
"We believe the bill was unconstitutional. We believe it was a badly written piece of legislation," Armstead said.
He noted that Thompson had appointed members of the joint conference committee to meet with the Senate but that it never met.
"The speaker has certainly drug his feet on having the conference committee meet and address these problems," Armstead said.
Thompson said he expected Manchin to proclaim an election.
"People have clearly identified they would want to have an election," Thompson said.
He said the bill was still alive - the House meets again shortly after noon today - but suggested it was near death because of the super majority needed to make the bill take effect immediately.
"The bloc on that vote was pretty well the end of the bill," Thompson said.
Just before 1 p.m. Saturday, the House voted down the whole bill, 42-45. Then Manchin called several lawmakers into his office and lobbied them to vote for the bill.
Just after 4 p.m. Saturday, the House reconsidered its vote, passing the bill 46-37. But then, when the House voted on the effective date, it refused to make it immediate in a 50-34 vote.