What will happen to Kennedy's Senate seat?

Massachusetts legislators are deciding whether to change the law to allow the governor to appoint a temporary replacement.

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    Sen. Edward Kennedy accepts his party's nomination during the state's Democratic Convention in Worcester, Mass, in this June 2, 2006 file photo.
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Edward Kennedy leaves behind not only a distinguished political legacy, but also a vacancy in the Senate that he served for nearly 47 years.

While funeral preparations for the Democratic senator proceed, Massachusetts legislators are deciding whether to honor Senator Kennedy’s request to change the way the state fills a vacant Senate seat.

Under current Massachusetts law, Kennedy’s seat will remain empty for more than five months, until the state can hold a special election to fill it.

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This was not what Kennedy wanted. In a letter addressed to the Massachusetts governor, state Senate president, and House speaker, which was made public last week, Kennedy asked lawmakers to allow the governor to appoint a temporary replacement for an empty Senate seat, until an election could be held.

“If it comes to my desk, I’ll sign it,” said Gov. Deval Patrick (D) on Wednesday, voicing his support to amend the current law to allow for a temporary gubernatorial appointment.

He also said, “I support special elections. I think it’s the right arrangement,” but he noted that with healthcare and climate-change legislation likely to come before the Senate this fall, Massachusetts needs both of its votes.

Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, both Democrats, released a joint statement last Thursday in response to Kennedy’s letter. Although expressing regard for the senator, they were noncommittal on his appeal.

“We have great respect for the senator and what he continues to do for our commonwealth and our nation. It is our hope that he will continue to be a voice for the people of Massachusetts as long as he is able,” they said.

When speaking with members of the press Wednesday afternoon, Speaker DeLeo didn’t comment directly on whether he’s in favor of amending Massachusetts law. But he did say he would hold a hearing in the next month so that legislators and citizens alike can express their opinion on the issue.

President Murray did not comment on the issue further Wednesday.

“They’re all sticking their fingers in the wind to see if the public really wants this, if the public would accept it,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., explaining why many leading legislators have yet to announce their positions.

But at least six senators are taking more of a stand, writing a letter Tuesday to the House and Senate chairs of the state's Joint Committee on Election Laws.

“With so many vital issues being considered in Congress, we feel that any period of time where Massachusetts lacks full representation is too long,” the senators wrote.

State Sen. Robert O’Leary (D) is one of the six senators who support Kennedy’s request. “I don’t know why anyone would argue against [amending the law],” he says. “Why would we cut our representation in half when we could have someone there to cast a vote on our behalf?”

Massachusetts’ current law was enacted just five years ago, when a Democratic state Senate didn't want the Republican governor, Mitt Romney, to have the power to replace Sen. John Kerry (D), had he been elected US president.

Now, legislators may change the law again.

“It becomes more likely to happen if [President] Obama signals he wants it to happen,” says Professor Berry, although it’s often a mistake for presidents to enter state politics, he notes. “If he sent a message via back channel, I think the Democratic leadership in the State House would be more amenable to this.”

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Kennedy's legacy as Senate's liberal lion

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