Mass. Dems Cautious on Kennedy Request

Legislators consider politics of changing state's sucession law -- again.

August 20, 2009, 3:01 PM

Aug. 20, 2009— -- Following Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy's letter asking Massachusetts leaders to allow an immediate, temporary gubernatorial appointment to fill his soon-to-be vacant seat, Bay State legislators remain noncommittal about changing the state's succession law.

Current Massachusetts law requires a special election be held five months after a congressional vacancy. That means Kennedy's Senate seat would remain empty during the time between his death or resignation and an election.

In a joint statement, state Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo praised Kennedy for "what he continues to do for our commonwealth and our nation" and express a shared desired that "he will continue to be a voice for the people of Massachusetts as long as he is able."

But neither has commented publicly on the prospect of taking up Kennedy's request in a legislative session.

Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement today that "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," but went no further. Kennedy has been battling brain cancer for more than a year.

Patrick has supported a public vote to fill congressional vacancies but has also contemplated the case for an appointment. Last fall, he noted that more than 40 other states fill congressional vacancies by appointment; he has also previously cited the state's budget woes as one argument for foregoing a special election.

Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees elections in Massachusetts, told the Associated Press that the law cannot be changed without debate, public hearings and a vote by the Legislature while meeting in formal session.

"This is not a change that could happen today," Galvin said.

Timing aside, changes to the succession law could pose political challenges for Massachusetts Democrats, who have majorities in both legislative chambers and hold the governorship.

"Many Democrats on Beacon Hill are reluctant to do what looks like a brazen power grab," said Susan Milligan of the The Boston Globe. "I don't think [amending the law] is a 'lock' at all."

Kennedy: 2004 Succession Law Good But Flawed

Kennedy's request comes just five years after the Massachusetts legislature changed its succession law to require a special election instead of gubernatorial appointment to fill congressional vacancies – a change Kennedy supported.

In 2004, state Democrats implemented the new rules out of fear that then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would fill Democratic Sen. John Kerry's seat with a Republican should Kerry have been elected to the Presidency.

"Ted told me months ago that he thought the 2004 law was right to empower the people to choose their Senator," said Kennedy friend and colleague Sen. John Kerry. "But [he said it was] flawed because he doesn't believe that under any circumstances, now or ever, Massachusetts should have anything less than full representation in the United States Senate."

In his letter to Gov. Patrick, Kennedy stipulates that a "condition of appointment" for an interim Senator should be an "explicit personal commitment not to become a candidate in the special election" in order to preserve fairness.

Still, Republicans both in Massachusetts and Washington are crying foul.

"When you start mucking around with election laws and start changing laws to benefit different individuals and different political parties,there's a lot of unintended consequences that end up happening as a result," state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei told ABC News.

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, reacted to Kennedy's request saying in a statement that Democrats would be playing "partisan politics" if they "reverse themselves simply because it's now politically inconvenient."

Still, some Democrats believe voters won't interpret a special temporary appointment as "partisan" since Kennedy made the request himself and since the 2004 law is relatively recent.

There is "a big blank slate here for legislators to write anything on it," said Dan Payne, a Massachusetts Democratic strategist. Payne says he expects the Massachusetts legislature will ultimately heed Senator Kennedy's wishes and amend state law to appoint a temporary replacement.

"Kennedy is that influential that they could get a special session for him," he said. But "they're not going to do anything until he's dead."

Kennedy Determined to See "His Life's Work" Through, Despite Illness

The letter from cancer-stricken Kennedy to Gov. Patrick, Senate President Murray and House Speaker DeLeo was written in July but not sent until this week.

It is an extraordinary acknowledgement that Kennedy's historic 47-year Senate career is coming to a close and recognition that a months-long vacancy could deny Democrats a key vote in the Senate.

"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 wrote state leaders.

"Probably the most telling thing and the most troubling thing about [the letter] is it affirms that we are looking at a time when we won't have Ted Kennedy in the Senate," Massachusetts Secretary of State Galvin told ABC News.

"No one wants to openly consider the possibility that he couldn't come down for a vote if needed," said Milligan.

Given the Senator's ailing condition, that is a real possibility. Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in May 2008 and was initially treated with surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Health care has been Kennedy's signature issue, and although Democrats hold a potentially filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, the fate of health care reform could hinge on a single vote.

Support for reform from moderate Democrats remains uncertain and another Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has been seriously ill and often absent.

"They call Ted the Lion of the Senate for a reason," said Kerry in a statement. "He continues to work every single day on health care and the biggest issues of our time and every day he delivers."

Kennedy associates say the letter reflects a genuine concern by the senator over how to best serve his home state's interests and does not suggest a worsening of his condition.

"Obviously the senator is very sick," said Milligan. "The thing he's concerned most about is getting his health care plan."

Filling Big Shoes: Gov. Patrick's Choices For a Temporary Appointment

Despite speculation that Kennedy's wife, Vicki, is interested in the seat, family aides have told the Associated Press that she is not interested in replacing her husband either temporarily or permanently.

One of Kennedy's nephews, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, has also been described as interested, although his office points out Kennedy has made no public statements on the matter.

Payne expects Michael Dukakis – who is "still much beloved in Massachusetts" – and Peter Meade – one of the state's "super citizens" – will be among those considered to temporarily fill Kennedy's vacant seat.

Several state politicians interested in running for the seat would likely prefer Gov. Patrick not make an appointment. Among the figures with expressed interest in Kennedy's seat is Martha Coakley, the first female attorney general in Massachusetts.

Other Democrats who might try to succeed Kennedy include Reps. Stephen Lynch, Michael Capuano, Edward Markey, James McGovern and William Delahunt.

Former Rep. Martin Meehan, now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, has $4.8 million in his federal campaign account, the largest sum of any potential candidate. That would give him the advantage in any special election sprint.

On the Republican side, potential candidates include Cape Cod businessman Jeff Beatty, former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and Chris Egan, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Cooperation and Development.

Kennedy Remains in Seclusion

The 77-year-old Kennedy has been battling brain cancer since last spring, spending time with his family at their homes in Washington and in Hyannis Port, as well as a rental property in Florida.

He hasn't appeared on Capitol Hill for Senate business since April, and he was unable to attend the funeral for his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, earlier this month.

Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the last time that President Obama spoke with Kennedy was a few week ago about health care. He said they did not discuss Kennedy's letter to state leaders.

"[Kennedy] has been fully engaged," Sen. Kerry told the Globe. "If [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid required 60 votes tomorrow, Ted Kennedy would be on a plane and be down in the Senate to vote."

ABC News' Rick Klein, John Berman, and Barbara Garcia and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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