A bill allowing Gov. Deval Patrick to name an interim appointment to the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy is headed to the Massachusetts Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
The House of Representatives voted 95-58 in favor of the bill late Thursday.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, said the change is needed to ensure Massachusetts continues to be represented by two senators until voters can choose a replacement during a Jan. 19 special election.
“I just want to make sure that Massachusetts has a say … that Massachusetts has their voice heard on health care, on the environment, on clean energy,” DeLeo said.
Patrick, a Democrat and ally of President Barack Obama, also supports the change.
The bill was immediately moved to the Senate, and leaders called for a formal session at noon Friday. Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat, has been tightlipped about the bill’s chances in that chamber.
Senate Republican leader Richard Tisei has vowed to ask that the matter be postponed. Under Senate rules, that could delay any debate and vote until next week.
The House’s 16 Republicans oppose the measure.
They point out that Democrats changed the succession law in 2004 to create a special election 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, they said.
“When Senator Kennedy passed away we started the law that was on the books and we shouldn’t be changing the law midstream,” said House Republican leader Rep. Bradley H. Jones Jr. “Everything else is ancillary and extraneous to that.”
Kennedy died of brain cancer on Aug. 25.
Rep. Michael Moran, House chairman of the Committee on Election Laws, said lawmakers shouldn’t be handcuffed by past votes if they are not in the best interest of the state.
“I ask you to focus on the needs of Massachusetts not in 2004, but in 2009,” the Boston Democrat said.
Other Democratic lawmakers conceded a political motive in the vote, saying they wanted to protect Kennedy’s legacy, including his signature issue of expanded health care.
“Some people say it’s political. Of course it’s political,” said Rep. Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat and Kennedy supporter.
The bill initially would have required the appointee be from the same party as the person who created the vacancy, a Democrat in the case of Kennedy’s successor.
That requirement was stripped after critics raised constitutional concerns and noted that more than half of voters in Massachusetts aren’t enrolled in any party and would be barred from consideration.
Kennedy, in a letter sent to lawmakers before his death, urged the change in law saying “it is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens.”
The debate is being followed closely in Washington, where Democrats hope to regain a 60-vote, filibuster-proof margin in the U.S. Senate ahead of any debate on President Obama’s health care overhaul.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Massachusetts’ all-Democratic delegation to the U.S. House also back the change, saying they need all the votes they can to support the health care change.
Obama presidential counselor David Axelrod has contacted Massachusetts officials, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. The Massachusetts branch of Obama’s political arm, Organizing for America, has sent out e-mails advocating for the change.
DeLeo said lawmakers wanted to bar any appointee from also running as a candidate in the special election, but said they could not constitutionally include that provision in the bill.
DeLeo said House lawmakers hope to pass a separate resolution stating that it is the intention of the House that an appointee not also run in the special election.
Patrick has said he would extract from the appointee a promise not to be a candidate in the special election.
Those said to be under consideration for an interim appointment include former Gov. Michael Dukakis, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk Jr.; former Massachusetts Senate President Robert Travaglini, former Kennedy staff chief Nick Littlefield, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree and former state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.
Candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the special election include Attorney General Martha Coakley, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca. State Sen. Scott Brown and Canton Selectman Bob Burr are seeking the Republican nomination.
Party primaries are scheduled for Dec. 8.
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