Filling in for U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye won’t be easy, but depending on when a replacement is named that person could have an inside track on garnering national influence for Hawaii.

That’s because seniority reigns in the U.S. Senate, whether it’s related to chairing a powerful committee, such as Appropriations, or getting the comfiest office space.

If Gov. Neil Abercrombie appoints someone before Jan. 3 — the day 12 newly-elected freshman senators and possibly one appointee from South Carolina are scheduled to be sworn in — that individual will hold the seniority edge over the newbies.

This includes U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, who will be replacing retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, and who is unofficially ranked at No. 92 out of 100 on the seniority list.

While it doesn’t seem like much to be 87 or 88 on that list, every little bit counts. This is even more true, given the fact Hawaii needs to gain some ground after losing its two long-serving senators.

It helps that Hawaii has a penchant for electing incumbents. This means that as other states see turnover, it’s likely Hawaii’s delegation will stay put, accruing even more seniority and moving higher on the list.

Sources tell Civil Beat that Hawaii Democrats are scheduled to meet Dec. 28 to select the nominees, and the the governor could make a decision in short order — suggesting the nominee could be sworn in before the 113th Congress meets.

How Important Is It?

“Everything around here is decided by seniority,” U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said. “Initially, it’s not important. But over time it could be very important.”

Committee leadership positions are tied to seniority. Inouye, for example, was the longest-serving senator in office before he died, and over the course of 50 years worked his way to the head of the Appropriations Committee. This is considered one of the most powerful positions in Congress.

But as Ritchie noted, seniority is a rigid concept. One day could mean a lifetime.

Case in point, Inouye was elected to the Senate in 1962, the same year as Ted Kennedy. But because Kennedy was filling a vacancy left by his brother, John, he was sworn in before Inouye. For the next several decades, this meant Kennedy held a seniority advantage over his friend.

But now Hawaii is starting over. Inouye is dead, and Akaka is retiring. The loss of their stature is expected to have a profound impact on the Aloha State, especially when it comes to federal funding.

This doesn’t mean Hawaii’s new senators will be powerless. They’re still one of 100, and can still use their votes and objections to sway decisions.

What it means, however, is that the Democratic Party of Hawaii and the governor might want to consider making an appointment sooner rather than later to take advantage of even that slight edge.

“It takes awhile to build up that kind of reservoir of seniority,” Ritchie said. “When you lose someone like an Inouye it takes other senators years to build up the reputation that Inouye had. It doesn’t come automatically. But then again, it took Sen. Inouye time to build up that reputation.”

Naming a Successor

Hawaii Democrats are now seeking applicants to fill Inouye’s seat until 2014, at which point there will be an election to serve the remaining two years of his term.

Maintaining the most senior position possible is a definite consideration as officials grapple with finding Inouye’s replacement. This could even mean streamlining the process to name a successor before Jan. 3.

“We think it would be a prudent thing to do it quickly to avoid any adverse implications to seniority,” said Tony Gill, who’s chair of the Oahu Democratic Party. “(But) it’s a theoretical consideration. Of course, we have multiple factors to consider, and as you slide the balance on one you devalue the other considerations.”

The state Democratic Party chairman, Dante Carpenter, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But he told The Hill that same day that, “We don’t want to lose a minute of seniority.”

Carpenter also said the party has already been collecting applications.

State law requires the Hawaii Democratic Party to give the governor the names of three nominees for the appointment, of which Abercrombie will choose one to fill Inouye’s vacancy.

Some names have already been mentioned. But Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa tops the list based on a letter Inouye sent to Abercrombie expressing his desire for her to replace him in the senate.

Gill said he doesn’t want to rush a choice, and instead wants to make sure the party and the governor have enough time to make intelligent decisions about possible appointees. He said he hopes this process will at least coincide with the day Hirono and others are sworn in.

“You don’t want to be later, but we have a very short time here, and we’re going into Christmas and the holidays,” Gill said. “I don’t know as a practical matter how far up stream you could push it.”

But even with all the distractions, Abercrombie made clear Tuesday that he wants someone in the Senate sooner rather than later.

In a statement, he said that although he wants to remember Inouye’s “good works,” it’s also important to address the “fiscal and debt-reduction issues” facing the state and country.

“The people of Hawaii deserve to be fully represented in the debates and decisions the Senate will have on those matters in the coming days and weeks,” Abercrombie said.

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