SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers ratcheted up their fight with Gov. Gary Herbert Wednesday over how the state should handle a vacancy in Congress should Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, step down.
Both House and Senate Republicans voted unanimously in their lunchtime caucus meetings to tell the governor to call a special session of the Legislature so a law can be passed putting a special election process in place.
GOP lawmakers now have agreed to a plan for conducting a special election to fill the 3rd District congressional seat that would have political party delegates nominate candidates instead of holding a primary.
That would involve "as many people as possible in as short a time as possible," and permit an election for a new member of Congress during the municipal primary vote in August, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said.
But the Republican governor isn't budging from what House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, labeled a "secret plan" for a 180-day or so election process that still allows candidates to gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot.
Herbert's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, said in a statement if there's a vacancy before the 2018 Legislature, "the governor would issue a writ calling for a special congressional election that would mirror Utah's current general election process."
Edwards, who did not provide a timeline or other specifics, said the governor's deliberations have been influenced by the "constitution, the current law, assuring the integrity of the process, and maximizing Utah voters' access to the ballot."
The latest blows in the ongoing battle over how to handle a congressional vacancy come as a new UtahPolicy.com poll suggests Utahns overwhelmingly back the type of special election proposed by the governor.
The poll released Wednesday shows more than three-quarters of Utahns want all voters to choose the candidates who would run to replace Chaffetz — not political party delegates.
Just 19 percent of Utahns said they preferred allowing political parties to pick the nominees who would go on a special election ballot if Chaffetz resigns before his term ends in early 2019.
But 76 percent said such an election should allow for candidates to advance to a primary ballot, through the caucus and convention system that lets delegates name nominees or by gathering voter signatures.
There was a similar response when Utahns were told delegates could nominate candidates faster while leaving the process up to all voters meant the replacement process would take longer.
The poll for the online political news source was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates May 15-16 of 603 registered Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.99 percent.
Republicans are openly fuming over Chaffetz's announcement a month ago that not only would he not seek re-election in 2018, he might leave office early for a private sector job the Deseret News has reported is believed to be at Fox News.
"We're completely frustrated that we are having to deal with this," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said. "If it's just to go on to a different job, a more lucrative job, that will be very offensive to me" as well as to other lawmakers.
Niederhauser said there has been talk of legislative leaders and the governor reaching out to Chaffetz. "We'd like to send a message, 'Stay in there the full term if at all possible.' That's what our preference would be."
On Wednesday, all Chaffetz would tell KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright is that he has "put some things into motion" and intends to make another announcement "sooner rather than later" followed by more information "in pretty short order."
Although Chaffetz has been coy about his plans, Hughes told the House GOP caucus that he's been assured it's "certain" the congressman will leave office, making the announcement within days that he'll be gone in June.
Hughes said lawmakers need to "send as strong a message" as possible to the governor about the legislative prerogative to establish election rules, calling it a separation of powers issue.
"We are a jealous branch of government," the speaker said, only in session 45 days a year unless the governor calls a special session, for which he or she also sets the agenda.
Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, suggested the caucus should consider what amounted to a threat to take the governor to court to protect legislative rights. However, the motion approved by the caucus did not include that provision.
Democratic lawmakers are also pushing for the governor to call a special session.
“We are talking about the fundamentals of our government - checks and balances. Defining how elections are run is a legislative power," House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said in a statement.
King said Democrats "may have a lot in common with how the governor would like a special election to run, but it is not his prerogative. The legislature is responsible for those decisions. There is a need to provide clarity in our current law."
Legislative leaders and the governor have been sparring over the issue for weeks.
In the 2017 Legislature, a Senate bill that would have made filling congressional vacancies similar to a regular election failed in the final hours of the session after being changed in the House to turn over the selection to party delegates.
Herbert has said he already has the authority to call a special election if one of Utah's four seats in the U.S. House becomes vacant and conduct it similar to a regular election.
But legislative leaders disagree and say because state law doesn't spell out the process for such an election, lawmakers must take action under a constitutional provision giving them authority over how elections are conducted.
The governor has raised concerns that with some lawmakers looking at running for Chaffetz's seat, they could be seen as gaming the race by structuring the election process.
Hughes, who took himself out of the race, said at the caucus meeting his concerns go beyond the special election issue and suggested lawmakers look at changing the state constitution so they, too, can call a special legislative session.
House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said after the caucus that it's been 90 years since the state had to deal with filling a vacant seat in Congress and he's optimistic something can be worked out with Herbert.
"None of us want to pick a fight with the governor," Wilson said. "None of us want to get into that kind of confrontation with him."
Niederhauser said he is appreciative that the governor has listened to the Legislature's concerns, including at a Wednesday morning meeting where Herbert made it clear "we're not here to poke each other in the eye."
But the Senate president said lawmakers "want it to be clear with the public and the governor we have come up with a plan and we want to get it passed and we want to be called into special session to do it."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy