The governor should be allowed to name an interim replacement to the late Edward Kennedy's vacant Senate seat because it would help ensure health care overhaul legislation gets passed, Democrats told a packed Statehouse public hearing Wednesday.
Before he died last month at age 77 of brain cancer, Kennedy had asked lawmakers to allow Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to name a temporary senator to fill the seat until voters choose a permanent replacement in a Jan. 19 special election.
Senate Democrats, including U.S. Sen. John Kerry, support the idea, in part to improve the chances of passing President Barack Obama's health care overhaul plan. Naming an interim replacement to Kennedy's seat would give Democrats a critical 60 votes in the Senate.
Kerry, testifying before state lawmakers and hundreds of supporters and critics, invoked the memory of Kennedy, who had said that expanding health care to all Americans was his life's work in the Senate.
"We are closer than ever to providing health care coverage to every man, woman and child in America," Kerry told lawmakers. "None of these big challenges will be decided by huge margins. ... These are times again when every vote will count."
An interim senator could keep Kennedy's staff and respond to requests from citizens, supporters say. Without a replacement, Kennedy's staff must shut down his office within 60 days of his death.
‘All hands on deck’
"It is absolutely essential that Massachusetts not go underrepresented," said U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. "All hands on deck."
In written testimony, Patrick, who is recuperating from hip replacement surgery, said he supports both the special election and the interim appointment. He said if he is allowed to make the appointment, he would ensure the appointee wouldn't run in the special election.
Patrick pointed to the anticipated Senate debate on Obama's health care initiative, "framed in large measure around the bipartisan model we developed here in Massachusetts," as a key reason to appoint an interim successor.
The entire, all-Democratic Massachusetts congressional delegation endorsed the change in a letter to the two chairmen of the state Elections Law Committee, which held the hearing.
Republicans, vastly outnumbered in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, called the proposal a power grab.
"This is really a political power play by the Democrats to ensure there is a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate to go forward with a very unpopular health care plan," said Massachusetts Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Nassour.
Republicans sent out e-mails urging "activists, concerned citizens and defenders of democracy" to attend the hearing. They also started an online petition and urged supporters to call radio talk show hosts in the Boston area.
The GOP points out that just five years ago, when Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president, the Democratic-controlled state House and Senate changed the law to block then-Gov. Mitt Romney from naming a fellow Republican to fill Kerry's seat if he became president. The changes also bar temporary appointments.
"It's a bad idea. It's clearly something that's meant for political gain by one party. You live by the sword, you die by the sword," said state Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, who is considering running for the seat. "You can't tell me that someone who's in that position temporarily isn't going to be actively campaigning for some person."
Kerry said the situation in 2004 was different. If he had been elected president, there would have been time to have a special election before any substantive issues came up before the Senate, unlike the crowded fall calendar.
"We're going to be going like gangbusters," he said.
Neither Senate President Therese Murray nor House Speaker Robert DeLeo — both Democrats — have said whether they support the change.
Rep. Michael Moran, D-Boston, House chairman of the Committee on Election Laws, said lawmakers won't rush a decision, but won't shy away from taking action either.
Supporters of the change have set up their own online petition, organized by MassVOTE, a voting rights organization that includes senior and immigrant groups and labor unions.
Several candidates for Kennedy's seat have emerged.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley was the first Democrat to declare candidacy for the seat. U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, Stephen Lynch, Edward J. Markey and John Tierney also have said they're considering running.
On the Republican side, Bob Burr, a selectman from suburban Canton, says he will seek his party's nomination. Brown is assessing a candidacy. Former Bush White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card is also considering a run.