July 31, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

These Senators Do More Than Warm a Seat

Sen. Carte Goodwin looked like any other Senator on Tuesday as he stepped forward to the clerk’s desk to cast his first vote. The West Virginia Democrat will have a Member’s pin, an office in the Russell Senate Office Building and all the perks accorded a U.S. Senator.

But Goodwin, like several of his colleagues, won’t be getting too comfortable in his new digs.

Call them caretakers, seat-warmers, placeholders or lame ducks. Just make sure you call them Senators.

The Senate has four Members holding seats they do not expect to run for: Goodwin, who will fill in between the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and a special election this fall; Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who took now-President Barack Obama’s place; Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), who is serving in the stead of his longtime boss, now-Vice President Joseph Biden; and Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), who succeeded former Sen. Mel Martinez (R) when he resigned.

There haven’t been this many since 1954. But it’s certainly not unprecedented: Of the 188 appointments since 1913, more than a third of the appointed Senators did not go on to seek the seat they held.

Not all caretakers approach their tenures the same way. Burris, for example, initially planned to run for a full term, but the scandal that led to his appointment created a cloud that made a campaign untenable, and he succumbed to pressure from party leaders to drop his bid. Kaufman, on the other hand, took the job in 2009 knowing he would step aside two years later.

Whether they’re reluctant or content to be short-timers, these Senators describe gaining temporary access to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs as a privilege. And, they say, the job is what you make of it.

“It is a special honor and a special challenge,” says former Sen. Paul Kirk, the longtime aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who filled the seat for less than five months after Kennedy died in 2009. Appointed Senators with no designs on a permanent spot in the Senate “have almost a unique responsibility because they won’t ever face the electorate. Failure is not an option.”

Thomas Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, says such Senators play varying roles. “It depends on the circumstances of the appointment, the quality of the person and the nature of the work that they do,” he says.

Some bristle at the very use of the “caretaker” label. “I don’t like to call it that,” says LeMieux, a longtime chief of staff to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the man who appointed him and who is now seeking the seat for himself. LeMieux insists that the brevity of his tenure calls for more urgency, not less.

“My motto around the office is that we’re going to get six years out of 16 months,” he says.

Burris, who has played a low-key role in the chamber, says he would counsel the newly arrived West Virginian to savor his short stint. Goodwin should “learn all that he can and cherish the opportunity to serve in the greatest deliberative body in the world,” Burris says.

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