The governor of Massachusetts said Friday that President Barack Obama had personally talked to him about changing the state's Senate succession law, and White House aides were pushing for him to gain the power to temporarily replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy amid the administration's health care push.
A month after a White House spokesman labeled the issue a state matter, Gov. Deval Patrick said he and Obama spoke about changing the law as they both attended Kennedy's funeral in Boston last month.
He also said White House aides have been in contact frequently ever since and pushing for the change so they can regain control of 60 seats in the U.S. Senate. That would give the Democrats enough votes to overcome Republican efforts to use Senate rules to block the legislation from coming to a final vote.
"He and his whole team have been very clear about that," Patrick, an Obama ally, told reporters after holding a Cabinet meeting near his Berkshire Mountains vacation home.
"It's out there that the Senate president and the (House) speaker are trying to figure out whether this can be accomplished, and he fully understands, as do his aides, who I have talked to more about it, the importance of having the support for a change agenda down in Washington," Patrick added.
The governor spoke just moments after Republicans in the Massachusetts Senate temporarily blocked a bill allowing the Democratic governor to name an interim appointment.
Democrats changed the succession law in 2004 to create a five-month special election campaign and block then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, from naming a temporary replacement if Sen. John Kerry had won his presidential bid.
To change the law now that there is a Democrat in the governor's office smacks of hypocrisy, the Republicans say. The special election campaign is underway, with party primaries scheduled for Dec. 8 and the general election set for Jan. 19.
Republican Sen. Bruce E. Tarr, who raised the objection, said he assumes Democratic leaders believe they have the votes to pass the bill, yet he still holds out hope enough Democrats may be swayed to vote against it.
"I think there is some doubt about the ultimate outcome. Clearly the vote in the House was not a completely partisan vote," he said.
Republicans, who hold just five of 40 seats in the state Senate, objected to the bill being taken up without formal notice. Under Senate rules, the objection means the bill cannot be debated until the next formal session.
The Senate will next meet in a formal session on Monday. Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat, has been tightlipped about the bill's chances.
The delay came a day after the Massachusetts House voted 95-58 in favor of the bill, with 42 House Democrats joining all 16 Republicans in opposition.
Kennedy, in a letter sent to lawmakers before his death, urged the change in law in a letters to Patrick and legislative leaders shortly before his death last month of brain cancer.
He said, "It is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens."
Besides Obama and his team, others in Washington closely watching the debate include Kerry, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Massachusetts' all-Democratic delegation to the U.S. House.
Obama presidential counselor David Axelrod has contacted Massachusetts officials and the Massachusetts branch of Obama's political arm, Organizing for America, has sent out e-mails advocating for the change.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Friday that qualms about whether to allow the interim appointment should not be used to help defeat major policy issues like expanding Americans access to health care.
"Public policy questions important to everyone in America shouldn't be decided by a tragedy of death or some other non-electoral factor," Frank said.
Patrick has said he would extract from the appointee a promise not to be a candidate in the special election.