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House backs an interim senator

If Senate support holds, governor could make appointment next week

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 18, 2009

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House lawmakers approved legislation last night that gives Governor Deval Patrick the power to appoint a temporary successor to the late Edward M. Kennedy in the US Senate, putting Massachusetts on track to have a new senator in place by next week.

The passage of the bill, by a 95-to-58 vote, was a crucial step toward filling the seat left vacant by Kennedy’s death last month and could carry major implications as Congress debates an overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

“This bill will give us full representation today, and the people of Massachusetts will have their second voice in the US Senate,’’ said state Representative Michael Moran, a Democrat from Boston and cochairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws. “My overriding concern is making sure the people of Massachusetts are fully represented in the US Congress.’’

The legislation now goes to the Senate, where top lawmakers believe they have enough votes for it to pass, presuming some supporters do not get cold feet. Republicans, however, vow to use parliamentary maneuvers to stall final passage for as long as possible.

Senate President Therese Murray has scheduled formal sessions over the next several days, a move that, under legislative protocol, means that Republicans would probably exhaust their options for stalling by the middle of next week. The Senate could then pass the bill and send it to Patrick’s desk by Wednesday. He has vowed to sign it.

As attention turns to whom Patrick would appoint to the seat, administration officials have been silent about potential candidates, fearing it could influence the legislative debate, but are prepared to name an interim senator shortly after legislation is approved.

Possible candidates are believed to include former governor Michael Dukakis and former Democratic National Committee chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., who is chairman of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Passage of the bill has been a major issue on Beacon Hill since Kennedy’s death last month and has drawn sharp attention from Washington Democrats, who have been aggressively pushing for Massachusetts to temporarily fill the seat to give them more leeway in approving a national health care plan.

Shortly before his death, Kennedy himself advocated the change in law.

Republicans, who account for a historically small minority in the Legislature, have charged Democrats with hypocrisy, saying that the Democrats rejected making precisely the same change to the law in 2004, because they did not want Governor Mitt Romney to have a chance to appoint a Republican to the Senate in the event that Senator John F. Kerry won the presidency.

“There is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig,’’ said state Representative Elizabeth Poirier, a North Attleborough Republican. “It’s still a pig.’’

According to a Globe review of last night’s tally, 44 of the Democrats who voted against the amendment in 2004 changed their votes this time and voted for it.

State Representative Paul Frost, a Republican from Auburn, accused legislative leaders of making the change to “suit the whims of one political party.’’

“It is clear to me and, I think, to most people in Massachusetts that if [2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate] Kerry Healey had won that election and was governor today, we would not be here,’’ Frost said.

Republicans are vowing to use the vote as a campaign issue as Democrats are already feeling vulnerable over several Beacon Hill ethical scandals and a controversial increase in the state’s sales tax.

Several mayors have lost recent preliminary elections, perhaps a signal that the political atmosphere is sour for incumbents.

Several state lawmakers grew more nervous when former House speaker Thomas Finneran predicted that Democrats would experience some fallout.

“Democrats are going to pay a price for this politically,’’ Finneran, who was at the helm when the law was initially changed in 2004, said on his WRKO-AM morning talk show.

The original legislation would have required the governor’s appointee, who would serve until a Jan. 19 special election, to be of the same political party as the person who previously held the office.

But late yesterday afternoon, House lawmakers struck that provision by an 89-to-68 vote, with concerns that such a requirement may be unconstitutional.

Democrats broke with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and joined Republicans to support the measure.

During yesterday’s debate, which lasted nearly eight hours, Democratic state lawmakers argued that the state needed to fill the seat immediately so that their counterparts in Washington would have the votes to push through a health care bill that Kennedy would be proud of.

“Some people say this is political,’’ said state Representative Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat. “Of course it is political. This is the largest domestic vote so far in this century. This vote will be as important as the Social Security vote. This will be as important as the civil rights vote.’’

Republicans attempted to slow debate down, with many rising to speak for their full allotted time.

“We’re powerless to stop it, unless someone wants to steal the legislation or something like that, which has happened in this building before,’’ said House minority leader Brad Jones.

The debate began early yesterday afternoon, after the Democrats emerged from a closed-door caucus.

DeLeo, emerging from the caucus, made his first public comments in support of the change in law.

“At the end of the day, what concerns me greatly is that Massachusetts has that vote,’’ DeLeo said. “I don’t want to see Massachusetts not getting the representation they deserve.’’

He said the House and Senate both planned to approve resolutions saying they did not want the appointee to run for the office in the special election, or for the appointee to get involved in anyone’s campaign. The House approved such a resolution late last night.

Andrea Estes and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.