Lawmakers gird for hearing on Senate seat

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / September 7, 2009

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Democratic and Republican lawmakers are gearing up for a contentious public hearing Wednesday over a bill that would allow Governor Deval Patrick to name a temporary replacement for Edward M. Kennedy’s vacant US Senate seat.

Before his death last month from brain cancer, Kennedy sent a letter to Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo to ask lawmakers to change state law to allow an interim Senate appointee to serve until a special election can be held. Patrick, who has scheduled the Senate election for Jan. 19, supports the change, saying Massachusetts needs two voices in the Senate during the next five months.

Key Democrats in the US Senate - including Majority Leader Harry Reid and John F. Kerry - also support the interim appointment as they prepare for debate on President Obama’s health care overhaul.

But Republicans point out that just five years ago, the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts House and Senate changed the state law to block the governor, Mitt Romney, from naming a fellow Republican to fill the seat if Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, had won his White House campaign.

Previously, the governor was allowed to appoint a nominee until the next general election.

As part of the 2004 change, Democratic lawmakers also blocked the possibility of Romney naming an interim senator.

DeLeo and Murray have not said whether they support changing the law.

Tarah Donoghue, communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, said the GOP is urging activists to attend the hearing. The party is also circulating an online petition gathering names of those opposed to the bill via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“We are certainly organizing our concerned activist community so they can be heard at next week’s hearing,’’ she said. “Democrats want to change the law in their favor for the second time in five years.’’

Donoghue said opposition to the change extends beyond Massachusetts, noting that “Republicans nationwide are outraged about what’s happening’’ in the state.

John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, rejected the charge of hypocrisy.

The situation in 2009 is substantially different from 2004, he countered, including Kennedy’s request that the governor extract a promise from the person he appoints not to run in the special election.

Patrick said the bill would include Kennedy’s request that the person not run in the special election, but he conceded he couldn’t legally block the appointee from changing his or her mind.

The focus of the hearing is a bill filed by Representative Robert Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat, that tries to get around the problem by allowing the governor to name an interim senator only after the deadline for qualifying for the special election has passed.