Democrats Push to Replace Kennedy Before Votes on Major Obama Policy Initiatives

By Ben Pershing and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 28, 2009

Senior Democrats in Washington and Massachusetts have thrown their support behind a proposal to appoint a temporary replacement to fill the seat of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose death Tuesday left the leading cause of his political life -- national health insurance -- with one fewer vote of support.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday publicly endorsed the plan to change the state's law to allow an interim appointment before a special election is held in January, when the winner will serve out the remaining three years of Kennedy's term. Reid joined Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the party's 2004 presidential nominee and a close Kennedy ally, Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) and other top legislative leaders, all of whom want to ensure that sometime this fall Massachusetts has two senators. This would put Kennedy's immediate successor in place by the time Reid hopes to hold a Senate vote on health-care legislation.

Under current state law, Kennedy's seat remains vacant until a special election is held 145 to 160 days after his death, probably in January. That would leave President Obama with one fewer vote during the debate over health-care reform as well as other key issues, one vote shy of the 60 that Democrats need to shut down Republican filibusters if the caucus holds together.

In his last public action, Kennedy sent a letter last week to Patrick asking that state law be changed so the governor could name a successor to hold the job until the special election. Democrats initially seemed cool to the proposal, and Republicans complained that it smacked of hypocrisy, given that the appointment power was taken away in 2004 when the GOP held the governor's office and Kerry was battling for the presidency.

But the tide has shifted since Kennedy's death. Patrick told reporters in Boston on Wednesday that changing the law seemed like "a reasonable idea" and that he would sign a bill if it reached his desk.

"With so many important matters to be decided, the people of the commonwealth need two senators to represent Massachusetts until the special election," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Thursday.

If the law were changed, it would be part of a grand bargain among the state's top lawmakers. Patrick would be expected to name a caretaker to fill the seat, a political luminary who would pledge not to run in a special election. Speculation has centered on former governor Michael S. Dukakis, former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger and former state treasurer Shannon O'Brien -- all Democrats -- as potential appointees. Another prospect is Paul G. Kirk Jr., a confidant of the late senator and chairman of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, where Edward Kennedy now lies in repose.

State House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D) has indicated privately that he now backs the proposal, and Democratic state Senate President Therese Murray's opposition appears to be softening. Both Vicki Kennedy, the senator's widow, and Reid are lobbying state officials to fill the seat quickly.

Murray's support is critical, because she is viewed as a backer of one of the most likely candidates to run in the January special election, state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Other potential candidates come from the state's congressional delegation, including Democratic Reps. Stephen F. Lynch and Michael E. Capuano.

Rep. Barney Frank (D) has said he has no interest in the race.

The biggest wild cards would appear to be Kennedy family members. The seat has been in Kennedy hands since John F. Kennedy's 1952 election to the Senate, save for the 22-month gap between his presidential victory in 1960 and Edward Kennedy's victory in 1962, a period during which family friend Benjamin A. Smith II held the seat.

Vicki Kennedy has not expressed any public interest in the seat, so others are looking at former representative Joseph P. Kennedy II (D), the late senator's nephew.

Although any Democrat would be heavily favored in the liberal-leaning state, Republican state Sen. Scott P. Brown has been mentioned as a possible contender, as has former U.S. attorney Michael J. Sullivan. Ex-governor Mitt Romney remains interested in another run at the GOP presidential nomination, not state politics.

Meanwhile, in the Capitol, Democrats quietly are mulling over whom to appoint as Kennedy's full-time successor as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate, is in line for chairmanship and has been overseeing the panel's health-care legislation in Kennedy's absence. Dodd must decide whether he wants to give up his chairmanship of the banking committee.

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