The Minnesota Senate was considering a whole lot of "ifs" on Thursday.
What if President-elect Joe Biden offered U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar a job in his administration? What if she took it? Then what if Gov. Tim Walz appointed Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan to Klobuchar's seat?
Whether any of that will happen remains to be seen, but Senate Republicans weren't planning to wait around to find out. In the sixth special session this year, legislators played political chess as Republicans tried to protect their one-seat hold on the Senate next year if Klobuchar joins Biden's cabinet.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the DFL-led House clashed yet again over Walz's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with the number of cases and deaths spiking across the state. Minnesota saw another daily record in new coronavirus cases Thursday, with more than 7,200 infections and 39 deaths.
The monthly special sessions are intended to give legislators a chance to rescind Walz's ongoing emergency powers, something that requires majorities in both chambers. In a departure from the past five sessions, the Senate GOP majority did not take a vote to end Walz's peacetime emergency. Instead, they fixed their sights on switching up the Senate president.
In an unusual move, Republicans shifted Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, into the president's job, replacing Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, for the remainder of 2020. The strategy was to protect Miller's seat in case he might be called upon to automatically fill the post of lieutenant governor in the event Walz picked Flanagan to replace Klobuchar in the U.S. Senate.
With Tomassoni installed as Senate president, the job would go to him, vacating a Senate seat held by a Democrat instead of a Republican.
The gambit was to prevent a repeat of 2017. That's when former Gov. Mark Dayton appointed then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to Al Franken's open U.S. Senate seat. GOP Senate President Michelle Fischbach ascended to the role of lieutenant governor, prompting a court fight as Fischbach tried to maintain both roles to prevent the GOP from losing a 34-33 majority. She ultimately resigned her Senate seat and a special election was held to fill it.
Republicans are poised to hold the same precarious majority next year as they did three years ago.
A special election for either Tomassoni's or Miller's seats could be competitive. Miller, first elected in 2010, won the most recent election in his southern Minnesota district with 57% of the vote. President Donald Trump carried the same district by a more narrow 53 to 47% margin. Tomassoni won his re-election by an almost identical margin, but his northern Minnesota seat broke for Trump in 2020. The president carried 52.5% of the vote in that district.
Despite the maneuvering, Klobuchar has not said whether she would accept an administration job. "When the president calls, you listen," she told WCCO Radio on Thursday. "But I think my position in the Senate couldn't be more important right now."
Nor has Walz said whether Flanagan would be his Senate pick if Klobuchar moved into the Biden administration. "I asked the questions of my in-house counsel, what is the process, what would happen if Senator Klobuchar is chosen? What does that look like? What's the timing? And that's all we pursued on it," he said Wednesday.
The motion to make Tomassoni Senate president passed on a bipartisan vote of 63-4. Laughter echoed through the chamber as Tomassoni voted "aye" for himself. After the vote, Tomassoni, wearing an upside-down face shield, walked up to the dais to assume his new role.
"I'm told that this job doesn't come with a wig and a robe, but I think if it did I would definitely wear the wig," the notably balding 67-year-old quipped.
The Iron Range Democrat noted that it's the first time "since the advent of partisan politics" that a member of the minority caucus was elected as Senate president. While his tenure could be short — Miller indicated that he'll be back in the role during the regular session — Tomassoni said he hopes it marks the "beginning of working across the aisle and coming up with bipartisan solutions" for Minnesota.
After he spoke, his colleagues broke into applause, a violation of procedural rules.
"OK, that's my first test. I'm not supposed to let you do that," he joked. "But go ahead, if you want to clap more, that's OK."
While the tone in the Senate was jovial, the House discussion was serious.
Representatives debated a Republican proposal that would allow Walz to extend his executive orders for the pandemic and issue new ones, subject to changes or revocation by the Legislature every 30 days. Past GOP efforts have focused on eliminating Walz's emergency powers entirely. The measure, promoted as a reform, failed 73-60 on a largely party-line vote.
The bill's author, Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, acknowledged that the surge in COVID-19 cases is "a serious situation." But she said Walz has taken away legislators' power. "Our tools to bring our constituents' concerns to St. Paul and to problem-solve and vet solutions have effectively been locked away for eight months," she said.
Among the mandates Haley opposes are orders blocking people from eating in the bar space at restaurants and a rule that counts an additional 30 minutes of prep time toward teachers' instruction hours.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, pushed back on the GOP proposal. "The urgency of this moment is not whether Republican politicians should have more ability to nitpick the governor's executive orders," he said, stressing the importance of face masks and other health guidelines.