presidential line of succession

Californians Move Toward Lock on Presidential Succession

Dianne Feinstein is in line to become Senate president pro tempore if Democrats hang onto control of the chamber next year. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The news that Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont is retiring next year after a remarkable 48 years in the upper chamber means we’ll soon be missing his gravel-voiced pearls of wisdom during major sessions of the Judiciary Committee. Given Vermont’s current political complexion, it probably won’t affect the partisan balance in the Senate (though it’s worth noting that when Leahy was first elected in 1974, he became the first Democratic senator from Vermont in its entire history — and technically still the only one given Bernie Sanders’s independent affiliation).

It may, however, affect the presidential succession, since Leahy is president pro tempore of the Senate, third (after the veep and the House Speaker) in line for the presidency in case of a vacancy. Because it’s a position by tradition held by the most senior senator of the majority party, the pro tem gig will now go to California’s Dianne Feinstein if Democrats maintain control of the Senate next year.

That’s interesting because the pols currently in the first and second positions in the presidential line of succession are also Democratic women from California: Vice-President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I mean, what are the odds of that?

Now as it happens, the odds of Pelosi remaining Speaker in 2023 are very low, because (a) she has indicated she will step down as Speaker at the end of this term, and (b) even if she changed her mind, the odds of Democrats maintaining control of the House next year (given the very narrow margin of control they now have, along with the near-universal history of midterm House losses by a new president’s party, aggravated by very likely GOP gains from redistricting) are not great, to put it mildly. But here’s how crafty California is: Should Republicans flip the House, the odds-on favorite to become Speaker is the Golden State’s own Kevin McCarthy. He’s not a Democratic woman, but he would maintain the California grip on the presidential succession assuming (and this remains the most likely outcome at this point) Democrats keep the Senate.

The only interloper in sight for the top three spots in the succession is the Iowan — and very un-Californian — Chuck Grassley, who would almost certainly become Senate president pro tem if Republicans flip the upper chamber. He’s already held the position for two years between Orrin Hatch’s retirement in 2019 and the Democratic takeover of the Senate this year. It hardly seems fair he could occupy it again, but seniority is an unforgiving and arbitrary allocator of honorifics.

Californians Move Toward Lock on Presidential Succession