UPDATED, 3:33 P.M.--Massachusetts lawmakers will move forward next month on the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy's recent request to change the state's political succession law. Lawmakers will consider whether to allow Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint a temporary successor to fill Kennedy's vacant seat prior to a special election that is likely to be held about five months from now.
Prior to his death, Kennedy last week sent a letter to Patrick, state Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo urging them to pass legislation to amend the law.
Kennedy, who has been absent from the Senate for much of the last 15 months since being diagnosed with brain cancer, foresaw his impending death as a hindrance to Senate Democrats who will likely need all 60 of their votes to pass a healthcare package later this year or early next year.
Patrick today told WBUR-FM in Boston that he supports changing the law and will urge state legislators to pass it.
"I believe that the senator's request to permit the governor to appoint someone to serve for that five months until a special election was entirely reasonable," Patrick said. "I think particularly now, when you think about the momentous change legislation that is pending in the Congress today, Massachusetts needs two voices."
According to a senior Statehouse aide familiar with recent discussions, DeLeo also supports changing the law, while Murray has not taken a position on the issue.
The next step in the process is a hearing, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 17, in the Election Laws Committee on a state House bill that would allow the change.
The aide said support for the bill is unclear, at best, right now because of partisan battles. "The governor's approval rating is really low, so he can't help us, and a lot of people are worried about it," he said. "It depends on how the vacuum down there [in Washington] affects us up here."
In particular, Massachusetts legislators are concerned with the level of constituent work Kennedy's staff can do without him in charge. Sources said moving a bill would be easier if Kennedy were alive, but that if Kennedy's office is too restricted on what it can do for constituents, that could cause support to shift more in favor of an interim replacement.
According to a representative for the Secretary of the Senate, "all duties that the staff perform pertain to the closing of [Kennedy's] office." The secretary takes control of the office and during the next 60 days will work with the staff to close it. In terms of constituent work, all Kennedy's staff will be able to do is either work with constituents to determine no further action is needed and close their cases or transfer their cases to other members of the delegation, according to the representative.
For his part, Kennedy had urged Patrick, if laws were changed, to appoint someone who would not seek the seat in the special election. Patrick must schedule that special election sometime within the next 145 to 160 days. A primary must be set six weeks before the special.
Reps. Michael Capuano and Steven Lynch have both signaled interest in the seat, and Attorney General Martha Coakley is a potential candidate as well. Former Rep. Martin Meehan, now president of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, might consider the race and has nearly $5 million in his campaign fund.
Former Rep. Joseph Kennedy, the senator's nephew, still has $1.7 million in his campaign fund and if he chose to run, that would likely convince other candidates to stay out.
Kennedy's widow, Vicki, also might be considered a candidate, although sources said she is not planning to run and would not have the family's backing if she did.
House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank would not run and it is unclear if Rep. Edward Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and chairman of the House Global Warming Committee, would give up his post and House seniority, observers said.