CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The person who gets picked to fill the seat vacated by the death of Democratic U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd won't have to face an election until 2012, a key decision for Democrats nationally trying to hold onto a slim majority in Congress after this November's elections.
State officials scrambled Monday — hours after Byrd died at age 92 — to study election laws and a 1994 state Supreme Court ruling, and determined whomever Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin appoints will be able to serve out nearly all of the remainder of Byrd's six-year term, which ends after the 2012 elections.
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Byrd had held the seat for 51 years, the country's longest-serving senator until his death.
Republicans wanted an election this fall when 36 Senate seats are already on the ballot, but they doubted they would challenge Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's decision.
Byrd's death, coupled with new misgivings by Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, also complicated President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
Byrd and Brown were among the 61 senators who had supported an original Senate version of a sweeping overhaul of the nation's financial regulations, but Brown said Monday he doesn't like $19 billion in new fees on large banks and hedge funds that were added to the legislation.
Without their votes on the final House-Senate version, Democrats have to scramble for the 60th vote needed to overcome Republican procedural obstacles that could defeat the bill. Byrd's death also complicates when the final Senate vote might occur. Lawmakers had hoped to send the bill to the White House before July 4 for President Barack Obama's signature.
Manchin told The Associated Press there was no timetable for when he will make the decision, only that he won't be appointing himself.
Any appointee would have to be loyal to Manchin's unspoken plan to run for the seat when his current term as governor ends in 2012, political observers said.
"It's a continuation of Manchin, rather than Byrd," said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College. "In this case, it's directly loyal to the governor and the state."
Manchin, a popular governor who is barred from running for a third consecutive term, recently announced the creation of a political action committee to promote the state and put him in the "best position possible to serve."
Who Manchin picks to replace Byrd has been a topic of speculation since Byrd's health started to fail last year.
Outgoing state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey, a Charleston lobbyist and longtime Manchin friend and supporter, had been touted as a likely pick until Byrd and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., jointly nominated him for a federal judgeship last year.
Larry Puccio, another Manchin stalwart and Casey's successor as party chief, is considered a potential choice along with Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, and first lady Gayle Manchin. Potential Republican contenders include Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and former Secretary of State Betty Ireland.
The secretary of state's decision means a special election will be held in November 2012 for the remaining two months of Byrd's term. An election will also be held then for a new 6-year term.
Registered Democrats have a nearly two-to-one edge over Republicans in West Virginia, though the state has picked GOP presidential candidates in the past three elections.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.