Mass. Democrats support filling Kennedy seat now

BOSTON (Reuters) - Democratic politicians and voters urged Massachusetts lawmakers Wednesday to pass a law that would allow an interim senator to succeed the late Edward Kennedy immediately.

Under current state law, Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat will remain empty for the next four months, depriving the Democrats of a crucial 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.

A vote could take place in the Massachusetts statehouse within days.

Republicans also turned out in force, calling their rivals hypocrites. Democrats put the current law in place in 2004 to deprive a Republican governor of the opportunity to name a replacement for Senator John Kerry, who would have left the Senate had he been elected president.

Under the 2004 change, the next senator must be elected in a special election that Governor Deval Patrick has scheduled for January.

“This is not the first time in history that a law has been changed. This is not a grab in the dead of night,” Kerry told reporters after addressing the hearing.

“We were in a very different situation than 2004. Let us put the past behind us where it belongs and do this in a fair and open way,” Kerry said.

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.

“Honor his last request, it is the right thing to do,” said Thomas Moran, a cancer survivor.

A tearful Crystal Evans, who suffers from mitochondrial disease and is confined to a wheelchair, said: “If I have to wait for five months for a new senator I may not live that long.”

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.

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.

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