Patrick’s selection won’t get some key perks on the Hill

For Democrats, all eyes on a potential prize

By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / September 24, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The next junior senator from Massachusetts will not get plum committee assignments, primo Capitol Hill office space, or the much-coveted “hideaway’’ for private gatherings. The temporary fill-in for the late Edward M. Kennedy should not count on the perks - or the respect - that the “Lion of the Senate’’ accumulated over nearly five decades in office.

But Kennedy’s interim replacement will get one of 100 votes in the Senate - and the immediate attention of top Democrats looking for all the troops they can find for the upcoming battle over legislation to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

The fill-in senator, selected by Governor Deval Patrick, could be sworn into office within 48 hours of being announced. Patrick could announce his decision as soon as today; that person would serve until after a special election Jan. 19, when voters pick a candidate to serve the three years remaining in Kennedy’s term.

However, leading Republicans and Democrats cautioned yesterday that the newest senator might not necessarily be the deciding vote on health care, because some moderate Democrats are also wary of the developing legislation. Democratic leaders are trying to reach the 60-vote threshold, the magic number needed to end floor debate and stymie a Republican filibuster.

“I’m very much looking forward to having a 60th vote,’’ said Max Baucus, the Senate Finance chairman and Montana Democrat who has become President Obama’s point man on the controversial health care measure. “But it doesn’t change the dynamic’’ of what have been sensitive, frequently contentious negotiations with Republicans and moderate Democrats.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, echoed Baucus: One more Democratic vote isn’t enough to counter the growing opposition - and influence - of party moderates.

“There are too many ‘red-state’ Democrats,’’ said Graham, a staunch opponent of the Democrats’ current health care proposals. “They’re not going to sign on for what they perceive as a government power grab.’’

Michael Steele chairman of the Republican National Committee, blasted the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature for its final votes yesterday granting Patrick the power to appoint an interim replacement for Kennedy. “It is stunning how quick Bay State Democrats were to bow to political pressure from Washington in an effort to provide life support to President Obama’s faltering government-run health care experiment,’’ Steele said in a statement.

Kennedy’s death in August after a 15-month battle with brain cancer came at the height of negotiations over health care reform, which the late senator had called his “life’s work’’ and which Obama declared his top domestic priority. Kennedy’s absence had a significant effect, particularly when the issue broke down along party lines: Republicans missed his negotiating skill, while Democrats realized they needed his vote to pass any legislation.

“When Governor Patrick appoints an interim successor for Senator Kennedy, it will add an important voice to the health care debate - a voice that was lost with Senator Kennedy’s passing,’’ Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said through a spokesman yesterday. “We’ve seen in recent years that every vote counts and the people of Massachusetts need their full representation to be engaged in this critical health care debate.’’

Senator John F. Kerry, now the Bay State’s senior senator, said the vacancy had an impact beyond health care reform.

“What I know with certainty is that Massachusetts is best served by two voices in the Senate, and I’m grateful to all those who did the right thing in giving our delegation in Washington the strongest possible hand for these next few months,’’ Kerry said. “This is what Ted Kennedy wanted, what Governor Patrick and I wanted, and I firmly believe it’s what people in Massachusetts want because the big votes, on everything from health care to climate change, cannot wait.’’

The interim appointee could theoretically take Kennedy’s Senate seat within hours of Patrick’s selection, according to Beth Provenzano, deputy chief of staff for the secretary of the Senate’s office. Once a replacement is named, she said, the first step is to verify credentials - specifically, paperwork from the state confirming that the person has been duly appointed or elected.

Then, it becomes a matter of timing, Provenzano said: If the Senate is in session and Vice President Joe Biden is in town, the new senator can take the oath as soon as schedules allow.

Earlier this month, when Florida Senator Mel Martinez’s retirement became official, his replacement, George Lemieux, was sworn in less than two days later, Provenzano said. But once Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, was declared the winner of a disputed election, his swearing-in happened seven days later because the Senate was in recess. “It can be as fast as 48 hours, or longer, depending on how the system moves,’’ she said.