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Democrats Cite Health Care In Kennedy-Successor Debate

This article is more than 10 years old.

The governor should be allowed to name an interim replacement to the late Edward M. Kennedy's vacant Senate seat because it would help ensure health care overhaul legislation gets passed, Democrats told a packed State House public hearing Wednesday.

Before he died last month at age 77 of brain cancer, Kennedy had asked lawmakers to allow Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to name a temporary senator to fill the seat until voters can choose a permanent replacement during a special election, set for Jan. 19.

Senate Democrats, including U.S. Sen. John Kerry, support the change, in part to improve the chances of passing President Barack Obama's health care overhaul plan.

Kerry, testifying before state lawmakers and hundreds of supporters and critics, invoked the memory of Kennedy, who had said that expanding health care to all Americans was his life's work in the Senate.

Naming an interim replacement to Kennedy's seat would give Democrats a critical 60 votes in the Senate. Patrick, who would name the interim senator, is a strong supporter of Obama.

"We are closer than ever to providing health care coverage to every man, woman and child in America," Kerry told lawmakers. "None of these big challenges will be decided by huge margins. ... These are times again when every vote will count."

Kerry, Patrick and other supporters of the change also say that naming an interim senator will let the state maintain two voices in the Senate and aid in constituent services.

In written testimony, Patrick, who is recuperating from hip replacement surgery, said he supports both the special election and the interim appointment. He said if he is allowed to make the appointment, he would extract from that individual "a personal commitment to me not to be a candidate in the upcoming special election."

Patrick pointed to the anticipated Senate debate on Obama's health care initiative, "framed in large measure around the bipartisan model we developed here in Massachusetts," as a key reason to appoint an interim successor to Kennedy's seat.

He also urged Massachusetts lawmakers not to get stuck in past debates on how to fill Senate vacancies and consider what's best for the state now.

"As elected officials, our job, especially in times like these, is to look past partisan or parochial interests to the best interests of the Commonwealth," he said.

Republicans, vastly outnumbered in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, called the proposal a power grab.

They point out that just five years ago, when Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president, the Democrat-controlled state House and Senate changed the law to block then-Gov. Mitt Romney from naming a fellow Republican to fill Kerry's seat if he became president.

Previously, the governor had been allowed to appoint a replacement until the next general election.

"It's a bad idea, it's clearly something that's meant for political gain by one party. You live by the sword, you die by the sword," said state Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, who is considering running for the seat. "You can't tell me that someone who's in that position temporarily isn't going to be actively campaigning for some person."

The GOP sent out e-mails urging "all Republican activists, concerned citizens and defenders of democracy" to attend the hearing and voice their opposition. Republicans also started an online petition and listed on the party's Web site the names and telephone numbers of mostly conservative radio talk show hosts in the Boston area, urging supporters to call.

"The Democrats must be stopped from changing the election laws in Massachusetts every time it suits their needs," the party said on its Web site.

Neither Senate President Therese Murray nor House Speaker Robert DeLeo - both Democrats - have said whether they support the change.

Supporters of the change have set up their own online petition, organized by MassVOTE, a voting rights organization that includes senior and immigrant groups and labor unions including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, SEIU Massachusetts and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Members of the coalition rallied outside the Statehouse before the hearing.

Several declared and likely candidates for Kennedy's seat have already emerged.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley was the first Democrat to declare candidacy for the seat. U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, Stephen Lynch, Edward J. Markey and John Tierney also have said they're considering running.

On the Republican side, Bob Burr, a selectman from suburban Canton, has declared he will seek his party's nomination. Brown is spending up to $5,000 to assess a candidacy under a "testing the waters" provision of federal election law.

This program aired on September 9, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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