September 9, 2009 / 8:04 PM / 10 years ago

Mass. Democrats support filling Kennedy seat now

* Sen. Kerry, Gov. Patrick say state needs two senators

* Republicans blast it as hypocritical bid to retain power

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

BOSTON, Sept 9 (Reuters) - Democratic politicians urged Massachusetts lawmakers on Wednesday to pass a law that would allow an interim senator to succeed the late Edward Kennedy immediately, preserving the party’s 60-vote majority during a battle to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.

Citizens from the heavily Democratic state packed the hearing room, many wearing blue stickers declaring support for appointing a senator at once. Republicans also turned out in force, calling their rivals hypocrites for trying to change the law to hold on to the seat.

Under current Massachusetts law, the next senator must be elected in a special election, which Governor Deval Patrick has scheduled for January.

"Common sense profoundly argues to name an interim replacement because it is in the best interest of the people of Massachusetts," said John Kerry, the other senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.

"I believe Massachusetts must be represented to the fullest in Washington," Kerry told the hearing.

Kennedy died of brain cancer last month at age 77, ending 47 years of service in the Senate where he was a champion of healthcare reform.

His death deprives his Democratic party of its essential 60th vote in the Senate, the number needed to beat Republican tactical blocking maneuvers.

Shortly before his death, Kennedy urged Massachusetts lawmakers to change the law to give the governor the right to appoint someone to temporarily fill his seat until voters can pick a replacement.

Patrick, a Democrat, has said he supports changing the law so he could appoint a senator, and said he would ask the interim senator not to run in the special election.

Patrick sent a letter asking the joint committee on election laws to "authorize the governor (any governor) to appoint someone to serve as interim senator for the five months between the creation of the vacancy and the time of a special election."

"While we can depend on John Kerry to protect the interests of Massachusetts on these key matters, it is also true that we will need a full complement of voices and votes in our senatorial delegation," Patrick wrote.

Republicans noted that Democrats changed the law in 2004 to prevent Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from appointing a fellow Republican if Kerry had won the White House.

Since Kennedy’s death, the state’s Democratic attorney general, Martha Coakley, has said she will run for election and several Congressmen have expressed interest.

On Monday, Kennedy’s nephew, former Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, said he will not seek the seat, leaving the field wide open.

On the Republican side, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is considering running. (Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Daniel Trotta)

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