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Congressional vacancy bill narrowly advances

Rep. Deb Haaland, nominee for Secretary of Interior, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware on Dec. 19. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, in December after being nominated as interior secretary by then-President-elect Joe Biden. A bill that would change the procedure for filling U.S. House vacancies in New Mexico cleared its first Senate committee on Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

SANTA FE — With U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland poised to take the reins of a key federal agency, a bill that would overhaul the process for picking her potential successor passed its first Senate committee Monday.

However, the narrow margin of approval — the bill passed via a 6-5 vote — could prove problematic for supporters who hope to have it in place for the looming congressional vacancy.

That’s because the legislation, Senate Bill 254, would need to be approved by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to be implemented in time for a special election that would likely happen this summer.

The bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, and Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, would require Democrats, Republicans and other major political parties to pick their candidates for a vacant congressional seat in a special primary election.

Under the bill, winning candidates in the primary election would then face off in a general election, which would be held at least 63 days later.

“What we’re trying to do is restore democracy in this one circumstance,” Ely said during Monday’s hearing of the Senate Rules Committee.

For his part, Moores said holding primary elections for vacant U.S. House seats would result in better candidates, adding, “It should be opened up.”

He also pointed out that, unlike with vacant U.S. Senate seats, the Constitution requires that U.S. House seats be elected by eligible voters.

Under New Mexico’s current law, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver would have to call a special election to fill Haaland’s seat no later than 91 days after it is vacated.

The state’s major political parties would hold central committee meetings behind closed doors to nominate their own candidates before such an election.

During Monday’s committee hearing, Toulouse Oliver said she believes changes should be made to the system but expressed concern about changing the state’s election laws in midstream.

“This is going to be really difficult to do right now,” said Toulouse Oliver, adding planning is already underway for the special election to pick a new member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation.

In addition, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the Senate Rules Committee’s chairman, pointed out the bill would extend the timeline for filling a vacant congressional seat — from a maximum of 91 days to a minimum of 136 days.

After being nominated by President Joe Biden as interior secretary, Haaland is awaiting a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing and has not yet stepped down.

However, about a dozen candidates have already launched campaigns for her Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District seat, including four Democratic state lawmakers.

The bill now advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee with just over 30 days left in the 60-day legislative session.

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