NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The sponsor of a bill to give Tennessee lawmakers the power to select nominees to the U.S. Senate on Monday put the measure on hold until the last floor session of the year.
Under the bill, primary elections would be replaced with caucus votes in the General Assembly. State Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains said the measure is aimed at returning to a system more closely resembling the era before the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended legislatures’ power to directly appoint senators in 1913.
Niceley told Republican colleagues that his proposal has already had the desired effect of drawing the attention of the public and of the state’s current U.S. senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
“There have been more members of the Senate and House called by their U.S. senators in the last week than they have in the last 20 years,” Niceley said. “That’s what this bill is all about — getting some dialogue going between us and Washington.”
State Democrats said earlier Monday they want to be excluded from the measure. Roy Herron, the state party chairman, noted that Monday was the 100th anniversary of the state’s ratification of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Now we know what the Republicans mean when they claim to be for smaller government,” Herron said. “They want to take the people out of the elections and let a small number of Republican politicians grab their power.”
During some discussion of the measure on the Senate floor Monday evening, Sen. Brian Kelsey also referred to the anniversary of the state’s ratification of the 17th Amendment and said he opposed the bill, calling it “a bad idea.”
“This bill is anti-Democratic; this bill smells of elitism, of cronyism … and I sincerely hope we do not pursue it,” the Germantown Republican said.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey supports the bill.
But House GOP leaders are more hesitant about taking up the measure before the Legislature adjourns for the year. And while Chris Devaney, the chairman of the state Republican Party, last week acknowledged that many conservatives want to do away with the 17th Amendment, he said the bill wouldn’t accomplish that.
“I am concerned that the outcomes of such legislation may not achieve the desired effect of fixing what ails Washington,” he said.
Herron said Democrats stand by primary elections, despite the embarrassing nomination last year of Mark Clayton, a part-time flooring installer whose role in an anti-gay group caused the party to disavow him and urge voters to cast their ballots for someone else.
Clayton’s win among a group of seven little-known candidates came in a year where Democrats had little chance of unseating Corker.
Herron noted that the 17th Amendment was approved amid a series of corruption scandals involving the direct appointment of senators by state legislatures.
Said Herron: “This legislation is an idea whose time came and went two centuries ago.”