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Lawmakers divided on filling seat

Interim senator appointment debated

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 15, 2009

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House and Senate lawmakers are deeply divided over whether to give Governor Deval Patrick the authority to appoint an interim US senator to Edward M. Kennedy’s seat, even as top Democrats ramp up their lobbying for a measure that could come up for a vote as early as Thursday.

David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama, called Senate President Therese Murray last week, according to a person with knowledge of the call, indicating a high level of interest from the White House, which wants to ensure it has the votes in Congress to pass a major health care bill.

Senator John F. Kerry has volunteered to come and knock on doors at the State House, to persuade reluctant lawmakers. Kennedy’s wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, has also called Murray to advocate for the change.

After largely avoiding the issue, Attorney General Martha Coakley, the only major Democrat so far to formally announce a campaign for the Jan. 19 special election to fill Kennedy’s seat permanently, has also come out in favor of an interim appointment, a spokeswoman for her campaign said yesterday.

Patrick and members of the congressional delegation also continue making personal phone calls to legislators.

But with the level of support in the House and Senate uncertain, the fate of the legislation may well depend on how hard Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo advocate for it. Both have been meeting behind closed doors, but have remained publicly noncommittal.

“They can pressure all they want, but until DeLeo and Therese Murray are decided on what they want, it’s basically moot,’’ state Representative John Binienda, a Worcester Democrat who opposes the change, said of proponents of the change. “Let’s face it: If they decide either way, that’s the way that it will be pushed. If they decide they want it to pass, the bill will not be put forth into either chamber until they have the votes.’’

In Murray’s case, Coakley’s support could play a key role. Yesterday, the Senate president was named an honorary chairwoman of Coakley’s finance committee, meaning the two will work closely together over the next several months.

Rank-and-file lawmakers have been told by leadership that the tentative plan was to vote on the legislation Thursday.

“We’d like to see action sooner rather than later, in the next couple of days,’’ said state Senator Thomas P. Kennedy, a Brockton Democrat and cochairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, who supports changing the law.

Meanwhile, Republicans are vowing to use parliamentary maneuvers to stall the legislation for several weeks, setting up a bruising political battle that would make it essential for top lawmakers to have votes secured ahead of time.

“If they want to do it, they’ll find a way to do it, and they’ll squash us,’’ said Senate minority leader Richard Tisei, a Wakefield Republican. “But still, we could hold it up for a good amount of time, not for months, but for weeks.’’

“We would do it, absolutely,’’ he added. “It’s unfair to change the rules of the game when the process is already under way.’’

DeLeo called his leadership team Friday afternoon and asked them to begin polling legislators to see if he had the votes.

Polling showed that the votes were not there, House members say, but there was a large swath of undecided lawmakers.

“I continue to listen very carefully,’’ said state Representative Will Brownsberger, a Democrat from Belmont who is undecided. “On the one hand, I care deeply about the president’s agenda. On the other hand, there’s a strong progressive argument that the right way to choose a senator is through an election.’’

Murray has not been formally polling members, but a Democratic caucus last week and discussions with state senators indicate that the chamber is deadlocked on the issue.

“When this first came up, people were hesitant,’’ said state Senator Robert O’Leary, who is a chief sponsor of the legislation. “My sense is that’s changed. People are more aware of the significance of this.’’

Proponents say the Legislature should move swiftly to change the law because it could affect President Obama’s national health care plan, which is expected to be voted on later this year and to be decided by paper-thin margins. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who has also made calls to Massachusetts politicians to push for the change, has said he hopes a health care bill will be voted on by Thanksgiving.

The Democrat-led Legislature changed the law five years ago, when Mitt Romney was governor and lawmakers worried that he would appoint a Republican to fill Kerry’s seat if Kerry won the presidency.

At the time, lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have allowed for an interim appointment.

Before his death last month, Kennedy wrote to Patrick, Murray, and DeLeo to urge them to change the law, saying the state deserved to have full representation. If the law is changed, Kennedy said, the governor should seek a personal commitment from the interim appointee that he not run in the special election.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws last week held a hearing on the issue. Some lawmakers worry they will look hypocritical, because of their actions in 2004.