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Bullock Stays Mum on Possible Senate Appointment
The Democratic governor fended off reporters' questions Thursday
HELENA — If Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is any closer to deciding who to appoint to the U.S. Senate if Max Baucus is confirmed as the next ambassador to China, he isn't saying.

The Democratic governor fended off reporters' questions Thursday about how he plans to go about vetting candidates and his timeline for filling the seat if Baucus resigns before his term is up in January 2015.

"Certainly I've been thinking about it, certainly I've heard from Montanans expressing their interest," Bullock said. "There's a statutory timeline for what needs to be done. We've looked at that. But as far as sort of the details of any process and things like that, I'm going to hold off until there is an actual opening."

Republican legislative leaders sent Bullock a letter Thursday calling for transparency in the process of selecting a replacement. Senate President Jeff Essmann, House Speaker Mark Blasdel, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich and House Majority Leader Gordon Vance asked three questions of Bullock: How will he identify and select a person, when will the process begin and how will he include the public?

"I don't think this should be a backroom political deal," Essmann told The Associated Press.

Montana law gives the governor the power to make a temporary appointment to fill a Senate vacancy until an election is held, but it does not lay out a timeline or process for doing so. The decision is Bullock's alone — there is no candidate nominating committee, such as the state panel to fill vacant judgeships.

President Barack Obama formally nominated Baucus for the ambassadorship Tuesday, but the Montana Democrat must be confirmed by the Senate. It is unclear when that will happen.

Bullock said a "good handful of folks" have expressed an interest in an appointment, but the vacancy is only a hypothetical until there is an actual opening.

Essmann scoffed at the notion that the vacancy is hypothetical and the Senate might reject Baucus' appointment.

"It stretches my credulity that the U.S. Senate controlled by Democrats would not, in fact, endorse max Baucus for that very important post," Essmann of Billings said.

Bullock has endorsed Lt. Gov. John Walsh in the 2014 election for the seat. Walsh has expressed interest in an interim appointment, but Bullock declined to answer any questions about a possible Walsh appointment.

Former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams of Missoula also has said he would consider serving in the interim appointment, and said he has no interest in running to fill the seat for the full six-year term. Essmann said Williams' wife, former state Sen. Carol Williams, also should be considered.

David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University, said Bullock's response is keeping in character with how he has seen the governor operate.

"I think he's been very careful and deliberate thus far as governor," Parker said. "He's got a lot to think about in this particular decision. It's going to be somewhat of a high profile appointment. He wants to be careful and judicious about that."

Bullock would likely get ample notice before a Baucus resignation to prevent a prolonged gap in which the Senate seat would be vacant, Parker said.

"I don't think there would be a gap. He would move fast," Parker said.
 
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