Murray may shift on Kennedy Senate request

She is open to bid altering selection law

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / August 25, 2009

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Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray, who had privately expressed opposition to Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s plea for a temporary appointment to any US Senate vacancy, is now open to the idea, according to a colleague, who said she has given him the green light to round up the necessary votes.

State Senator Robert A. O’Leary, a Democrat from Barnstable, said Murray told him yesterday that she is listening carefully to the arguments for a change in a 2004 law that established a special election process to fill any vacant US Senate seats, but made no provisions for a temporary appointment during the five-month election process.

“She is listening to the members and keeping an open mind,’’ O’Leary said yesterday. “I am full steam ahead and she understands that and is fine with it.’’

In a letter to Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week, Kennedy - who is battling brain cancer - said that it was vital for Massachusetts to have two votes in the US Senate during an interim period. He asked them to approve a law swiftly giving the governor the power to appoint a temporary successor.

Murray, who has remained publicly silent on the issue, could not be reached for comment yesterday. But her apparent signal that she will not block any attempts to make the change - and could potentially support it - is significant, given that her opposition could defeat the effort.

Murray’s initial rejection of Kennedy’s request last week blocked Governor Deval Patrick and DeLeo from issuing statements on their positions. According to senior State House sources, they have expressed private support of Kennedy’s request but did not want to make their positions public until Murray was on board.

Kennedy has not been in Washington for several months, raising a potential problem for President Obama and Senate Democrats as they prepare for a potential showdown over health care legislation in coming weeks. The success of the legislation, which Kennedy has championed for decades, hinges on a few votes.

His letter, which reflected an extraordinary public recognition by him that his historic Senate career is coming to a close, created a political uproar, including a partisan backlash from Republicans and conservatives, both here and in Washington, who are accusing the senator and Democrats of trying to pull off a power grab.

Democrats had pushed through the 2004 law in order to deny Republican Mitt Romney, then the governor, the power of filling a vacancy if US Senator John F. Kerry won the presidential election that year. They also at the time rejected GOP attempts to provide for a temporary appointment.

But advocates said Massachusetts should have two votes in the US Senate at all times and that the state, which has always reelected Kennedy by wide margins, should have a say in the health care battle.

They also note that the Republicans had opposed the move to create a special election to fill the seat.

O’Leary, whose district includes Hyannis Port, Kennedy’s home, said that the initial reaction from his Senate colleagues has been cautious.

As of yesterday, three of his colleagues in the 40-member Senate had signed his letter calling for the change.

“It will be a bit of a sell,’’ he said. “I am willing to make a try but it has become more partisan than I anticipated.’’

O’Leary is asking senators to sign onto a bill, sponsored by state Representative Robert M. Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat, that provides a temporary appointment.

The person would be barred from running in the special election, a provision that Kennedy requested. It is not clear that such a prohibition could pass legal muster, although Arkansas has prohibited gubernatorial appointees from running for the office they temporarily hold.