BOSTON (Reuters) - The Massachusetts Senate voted on Tuesday to allow the governor to name an interim U.S. Senate replacement for the late Edward Kennedy and fill a key 60th seat for the Democrats during the healthcare battle.
The heavily Democratic state Senate passed the bill 24 to 16, following approval by the state House of Representatives last week. The bill will go back to both chambers on Wednesday for a final vote and then requires a signature from Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat who backs the legislation.
Patrick is likely to name a temporary replacement for Kennedy within days and is certain to pick a Democrat. That will return the party to the 60 votes it needs in the U.S. Senate to override Republican procedural hurdles, giving President Barack Obama a boost as he tries to get healthcare reform and other contentious legislation passed this year.
“All votes are crucial and the absence of that vote from Massachusetts would hurt those who are pushing for some form of health reform,” said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
“Certainly all the indications are that President Obama had pushed for this,” he added.
Kennedy, who died in August from brain cancer, was a liberal champion in the U.S. Senate for nearly five decades who made healthcare reform his signature issue as he carried on the legacy of his family’s storied political dynasty.
Without an interim replacement, Kennedy’s seat would have lain vacant until a January 19 special election of a permanent senator to serve through 2012, hurting Obama’s plan to pass an overhaul this year of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system.
“I’m very, very pleased with the number of senators that endorsed this and saw the value and the need for this,” said state Senator Thomas Kennedy, who is not related to the late Edward Kennedy, after the vote.
A separate resolution approved along with Tuesday’s bill “strongly discourages” a temporary appointee to the Senate from running in the January 19, 2010, election.
Kennedy had urged the state to name an interim senator upon his death, but the issue has divided Massachusetts Democrats.
The bill passed on Tuesday would reverse legislation the party pushed through in 2004 when it wanted to prevent a Republican governor from naming a replacement for Democratic Senator John Kerry if he won the White House.
The Massachusetts Republican Party called Tuesday’s vote “a stunning example of Democrat hypocrisy”.
Among names circulating for the interim appointee are former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Paul Kirk, a close friend of the Kennedy family and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Patrick may also ask Kennedy’s widow Victoria if she would like the interim seat, though she is reportedly not keen.
Democratic contenders for the elected U.S. Senate seat so far include state Attorney General Martha Coakley, private equity investor Stephen Pagliuca and U.S. Representative Mike Capuano.
No Republicans have yet come forward for the primary.
Additional reporting and writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by David Storey