State lawmakers mostly kept quiet Friday about whether they would support a proposal to give the governor authority to name someone to fill the vacant Senate seat before the state holds a special election in January. But the House member who chairs the joint legislative committee that would handle the bill said a hearing could be scheduled sometime after Labor Day.
The chairman, state Rep. Michael J. Moran, a Boston-area Democrat, told POLITICO Friday that plans for scheduling a hearing had been “put in neutral” during the period of mourning for Kennedy, but that lawmakers were likely to restart deliberations on a timeline next week.
Prior to his death, Kennedy sent a letter to the state’s top Democratic leaders asking them to change the Massachusetts succession law so that the state would not be without a vote in the Senate in the event his seat became vacant. Under current law, only voters have the authority to fill a Senate vacancy.
State House Speaker Robert DeLeo and state Senate President Therese Murray declined to publicly endorse the Kennedy plan before he died, but since then both have indicated they are open to it.
“I think that in relatively short order, probably within the next month or so, there will be a hearing on the subject at which time folks will have the opportunity to speak in favor or in opposition,” DeLeo said on Wednesday.
Murray also said Wednesday that Kennedy’s request would be “taken up in a timely fashion.”
On Tuesday—the day Kennedy died—seven state state House and state Senate members drafted a letter to Moran and his Senate counterpart, Thomas P. Kennedy, who head the state’s Joint Committee on Election laws, urging them to hold a public hearing on the legislation “as soon as the legislature resumes formal business the first week of September.”
Earlier this week, Patrick signaled that he would sign a bill giving him the power to install Kennedy's successor, saying at a news conference that the state “needs two voices in the United States Senate.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed that sentiment in a statement issued this week by his press secretary, Jim Manley, who said, “with so many important matters to be decided, the people of the Commonwealth need two Senators to represent Massachusetts until the special election.”
At the same time, the state is moving ahead with plans to hold a special election to select a replacement for Kennedy. In keeping with a state law that requires an election be held within 145 to 160 days of a Senate vacancy, Secretary of State William Francis Galvin proposed two possible dates for the special election—January 19 or January 26. The special primary election for the earlier date would then be held either on December 8 or December 15.
It is ultimately up to Patrick to pick the date, and on Friday an aide to the governor said he would announce his decision on the election date “shortly” but that for the moment, he was focused on mourning Senator Kennedy.
Massachusetts Republicans criticized supporters of the interim succession plan, noting that the Democratic-controlled legislature passed the existing law in 2004 in an attempt to deny then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, the opportunity to appoint someone to fill a Senate vacancy in the event that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won that year’s presidential election.
Frank Talty, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said the GOP is unlikely to be able to stop a move to change the law again.
If Republicans say “it’s better to have no senator at all for five months than to have a Democratic senator, they lose the argument,” Talty said.
But a long-time Massachusetts political strategist said the proposal might face opposition from Democrats over concerns about what would happen if the state had a Republican governor again at a time when a Senate vacancy occurred.
“There is ambivalence in the party,” said the strategist, who has worked for Democratic candidates. “A lot of people are asking, if there was no health care bill, would we even be doing this?”
Moran said that in his discussions with legislative colleagues, the biggest sticking point seems to be whether an interim pick would be allowed to run for the Senate seat in the special election.
“A lot of us believe that giving somebody a leg up or an advantage by giving them the title of U.S. Senator is not right,” he said. “That one issue seems to be the most controversial or the most problematic for members.”