UPDATE 1/13/11 @ 6 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- There was plenty of drama as the legislative session got underway Wednesday. It is a historic session because Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin is also acting as governor. The situation kicked off a fiery debate, but in the end the Senate is now under new leadership.
Tomblin will remain Senate president in name, but lawmakers voted to change the senate rules to create the position of acting Senate president who will rule the senate.
"It's imperative that we have a separation of powers," Sen. John Unger, a Democrat from Berkeley County says.
He and several others called for the acting Senate president position to be created in order to ensure there is a separation of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. But other lawmakers called the move unconstitutional.
"What they're trying to do is achieve their goal of taking control and seizing power in a moment of our state's history where our leader is in an awkward, difficult position," Sen. Evan Jenkins, a Democrat from Cabell County says.
Going into the session, those opposed to the rule change thought they had the backing to block the creation of an acting Senate president position but, when it came time to vote, it was clear some had changed their minds.
Sen. Karen Facemyer, a Republican from Jackson County, produced a document with 17 signatures from senators vowing to vote against the rule change. She says Tomblin was on the list; he says he never signed the paper.
"I hope he would be true to his word and join those of us who signed 'in blood' that sheet of paper saying we were opposed to any rule change. What a shame that it is that he's sitting downstairs right now," Facemyer said on the floor of the Senate.
But the rule change passed and the Senate now has its first ever acting Senate president, Democrat Jeff Kessler from Marshall County.
"I'm confident that what we did today is constitutional and provides a clear line between the Senate and governor's office," Kessler says.
But even though Kessler has been sworn into his new role, that doesn't mean the fight is over. The next stop could be the Supreme Court. Jenkins says he believes someone will challenge the move in court and he fears all of the bills passed with the acting Senate president's signature could be challenged, too.
Kessler says he thinks that now the procedural change has been taken care of, the senate can go about its business and focus on other issues.
Both Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and House Speaker Rick Thompson have been nominated for new terms as their chamber's leader. Each body will elect its officers when the 60-day regular session begins at noon Wednesday.
Thompson seeks quick action on a bill to clarify the state's parole process.
But Tomblin has been acting as governor since Joe Manchin joined the U.S. Senate in November. The situation has spurred questions over keeping the powers of the branches of government separate.
Marshall County Sen. Jeff Kessler seeks to become acting president while Tomblin is carrying out the chief executive's duties.
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