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Ted Kennedy Wants To Change Succession Laws in MA
Kennedy asked Massachusetts lawmakers to change state law to give Gov. Deval Patrick, a fellow Democrat and supporter of President Barack Obama, the ability to appoint an interim replacement to Kennedy's seat should Kennedy be unable to continue serving.
Under state law, an election is required within 145-160 days after a Senate seat becomes vacant. That would temporarily leave Massachusetts without a voice in the Senate — and Senate Democrats potentially one vote short on any health care overhaul legislation.
Kennedy said he supports the special election process, but wants to ensure the seat is filled during the course of the election.
"It is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election," Kennedy said in a letter to Patrick.
For Kennedy, the proposal is about more than just the mechanics of succession.
Health care has been Kennedy's core issue for decades. Although Democrats hold a potentially filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, the fate of a sweeping health care bill could hinge on a single vote and some moderate Democrats have been wavering. Another Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has been seriously ill and often absent.
Leaving supporters of a health care overhaul a vote short could put that piece of his legacy in jeopardy.
"I think he's simply being cautious about the future in order to protect issues he cares deeply about, most importantly health reform," said former Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Philip Johnston. "It's a statement of his commitment to health reform and his support of President Obama."
The clock for a special election is triggered either on the date of a resignation or the incumbent's death.
Though Massachusetts is dominated by Democrats, a change in the law isn't a sure thing. That's particularly true when the change has to do with the prickly topic of succession to one of the state's top political prizes.
Any change could not happen immediately. Lawmakers are not expected to return to formal sessions until after Labor Day.
Patrick, on vacation this week, issued a statement but gave no indication if he would support the change.
"It's typical of Ted Kennedy to be thinking ahead, and about the people of Massachusetts, when the rest of us are thinking about him," said Patrick, who just last fall noted more than 40 other states fill congressional vacancies by gubernatorial appointment.
Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo — both Democrats — were equally circumspect.
"We have great respect for the senator and what he continues to do for our commonwealth and our nation. It is our hope that he will continue to be a voice for the people of Massachusetts as long as he is able," they said in a joint statement.
The state last changed its succession law in 2004 to require the special election. Before that the governor was allowed to name a successor. At the time, Democrats were worried that then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would be able to fill any vacancy created if Democratic Sen. John Kerry was elected president.
Republican House Leader Brad Jones said he proposed virtually the same idea in 2004 as Kennedy is proposing now — which would have allowed Romney to name someone to fill the seat on an interim basis — but it was overwhelmingly rejected by Democrats.
"If this is going to move forward, people are going to have to explain what's changed between then and now," said Jones, of North Reading.
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