Massachusetts lawmakers debate Kennedy replacement

The state Senate and House are scheduled Thursday to consider a bill allowing the governor to temporarily fill Edward Kennedy's Senate seat.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. John Kerry (D), left, speaks alongside Rep. William Delahunt (D), during a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Election Laws at the Statehouse in Boston on Sept. 9.
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Massachusetts is inching closer to ensuring that the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’ seat doesn’t remain empty during this fall’s busy Senate calendar.

Both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate are scheduled to debate a bill Thursday afternoon that would allow a temporary gubernatorial appointee to occupy Senator Kennedy’s seat until voters name a permanent replacement in a special election to be held Jan. 19.

“We’ll keep trying to put it through,” said state Sen. Tom Kennedy (D), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, noting that Republicans would probably try to delay any vote.

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“Obviously they feel they have the votes [to pass the bill], otherwise it wouldn’t be coming up today,” state Rep. Paul Frost (R) said before the House debate. He added, “But we’re certainly not going to make this easy for them.”

Before his death last month, Kennedy had requested Massachusetts legislators to allow the governor to appoint a temporary “caretaker” for his Senate seat until a replacement could be elected in a special election. By law, a special election can only be held roughly five months after a Senate seat is vacated.

Initially, state lawmakers seemed hesitant to honor the request, despite Kennedy’s stature in the state and the timing of his request. Facing difficult mid-term elections, Democratic legislators were “afraid to get out ahead of public opinion on this,” says Dan Payne, a Democratic media consultant.

The recent support for the bill, he says, is “largely motivated by fear of what could happen in the Senate this fall without two votes from Massachusetts,” Mr. Payne adds. “They simply don’t want to get blamed for what might happen in the Senate without that vote.”

That vote may be particularly crucial for the passage of any healthcare reform legislation in the coming months. Without Kennedy, Democrats have 59 seats in the Senate and they need 60 votes to pass a bill without threat of filibuster.

“A lot of political influence is being exerted,” state Sen. Bruce Tar (R) said Thursday morning, adding that much of the pressure is coming from outside the state – from Washington and national organizations like Organizing for America.

Massachusetts’ current election law is only five years old. In 2004, the state’s Democratic legislature changed the law – which previously permitted the governor to fill a Senate vacancy through appointment – to require special elections. The change was motivated by concern that then Gov. Mitt Romney (R) would be able to appoint a Republican replacement for Sen. John Kerry (D), if he was successful in his presidential bid.

Republicans have charged that Democrats’ desire to change the law again is hypocritical and driven by their political agenda.

Democrats, including Senator Kerry, have countered that they are only seeking to plug an unforeseen gap in the current law. They argue that with a full Congressional calendar – include possible votes on climate change, and education legislation – Massachusetts needs two voting Senators to represent the state.

They’ve also noted that appointing a temporary replacement would allow Kennedy’s office to continue work on the hundreds of constituent cases that are still open. Under current Senate rules, Kennedy’s office must shut down within 60 days of his death.

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