BOSTON (Reuters) - Democrats pushed Monday to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy, with the Massachusetts governor throwing his support behind a proposal to name an interim successor and help Democrats retain a critical margin in the chamber.
Massachusetts lawmakers said they would hold a public hearing on September 9 to discuss changing state law so the Democratic governor could make a temporary appointment to the Senate, which is debating a $2.5 trillion healthcare overhaul.
Under current law, the seat would be vacant until a January 19 special election that Governor Deval Patrick set Monday to fill the remaining three years of Kennedy’s term.
Kennedy’s death deprives Democrats of a critical 60th vote in the 100-seat Senate which, if they are united, would allow them to overcome Republican procedural roadblocks to the healthcare overhaul urged by President Barack Obama.
Kennedy, a longtime champion of healthcare reform, made a plea before he died last week of brain cancer that state law be changed to allow a replacement to be named quickly.
The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has set a target date of September 15 to reach agreement on healthcare legislation, although it is unclear if that will be met. Obama has said he wants healthcare overhaul, a top priority of his presidency, approved by the end of the year.
After Kennedy’s burial Saturday, supporters of his bid for an interim successor wasted little time setting the wheels in motion.
Patrick told a news conference Monday he would work with the Democratic-controlled Legislature on a bill to authorize an interim Senate appointment as Kennedy had urged.
“This is the only way to ensure Massachusetts is fully represented until voters elect our next senator in January, “ Patrick said.
The current state law was enacted in 2004 in a effort by state Democrats to prevent then-Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from naming a successor if Democratic Senator John Kerry won his bid for the U.S. presidency. Kerry went on to lose the 2004 election to President George W. Bush.
Republican officials in Massachusetts have opposed changing the law, but they are greatly outnumbered in both chambers.
Kennedy died last Tuesday at age 77. He spent almost 47 years in the Senate, where he became one of the most powerful U.S. lawmakers and a hugely influential voice in liberal politics.
Patrick said it was too soon to discuss potential contenders for the interim appointment.
Possible contenders included state Attorney General Martha Coakley, several members of Congress and Kennedy’s nephew, Joseph Kennedy II, a former Democratic congressman.
Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, had also been mentioned for the temporary seat but Patrick said she was not interested.
Patrick said Massachusetts needed an interim successor so the state would not have only one voice at a time Congress is debating bills of such historic proportions, including healthcare reform.
“On the merits, the proposal seems to me to be reasonable and wise,” Patrick said of Kennedy’s request. “I hope members of the Legislature, regardless of party, will think so too.”
But Tarah Donoghue, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Republican Party, said, “We don’t want the Democrats to rob the voters of the right to choose the next senator.”
Republican George Peterson, assistant minority leader in the state House of Representatives, said the proposal would likely pass but questioned Democrats’ motives.
“This is being done solely for politics,” Peterson said.
Kennedy also had asked that the interim successor be ineligible to run in the special election.
Patrick said he was not sure if that would be allowable by law but that he would seek a personal assurance the interim appointee not seek the seat in the special election.
Democrats seem almost certain to retain Kennedy’s seat in the special election, analysts said, noting Massachusetts’ liberal leaning and the emotional tide created by the senator’s death.
Obama, with Kennedy’s backing, won Massachusetts in the 2008 presidential election with 62 percent of the vote.
The last time Massachusetts elected a Republican to the Senate was 1972, when it gave Edward Brooke a second term.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington, Ross Kerber and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney