At the request of gravely ill Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts lawmakers are weighing whether to speed up the process of appointing his successor, as Democratic leaders in Washington face a string of hard votes on health care and other issues when Congress returns next month.
But Bay State Republicans, while expressing sympathy for Mr. Kennedy’s plight, already were denouncing the effort Thursday as a power grab to change a law that had been put in place just four years earlier by the Democrat-dominated legislature.
“Do not eliminate the voter from the electoral process,” said Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jennifer Nassour. “The voice of the people must be heard through a timely special election, and Republicans trust the people to be informed and to make an informed choice - rather than leave any succession to the whims of a small group of politicians.”
Mr. Kennedy’s struggle with brain cancer has sidelined him for much of the past year, and his departure from the Senate appears imminent.
The long-serving Democrat was the only senator to miss voting on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor earlier this month and has been largely sidelined in the health care debate, an issue he has worked on most of his life.
In a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the leaders of the state General Court [legislature], Mr. Kennedy requested they amend a 2004 law that requires the state hold a special election 145 to 160 days after the seat is vacated.
The letter was dated July 2 but only delivered to state officials last week.
“Serving the people of Massachusetts in the United States Senate has been - and still is - the greatest honor of my public life,” Mr. Kennedy wrote in the letter, which was delivered Tuesday. “As I look ahead, I am convinced that enabling the Governor to fill a Senate vacancy through an interim appointment followed by a special election would best serve the people of our Commonwealth and country should a vacancy occur.”
Massachusetts passed a law mandating a special election to fill any vacant seats in 2004, amid the possibility of then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney appointing a Republican to fill out the term of then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
But a potential vacancy lasting about five months could hamstring Senate Democrats who hope to pass a health care measure this year.
The Senate Democratic Caucus holds 60 seats in the 100-member Senate, but the number has hardly proved to be filibuster-proof as Mr. Kennedy and West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd have been absent from the Senate.
Concerns from moderate to conservative Democrats have led some strategists to weigh ramming the measure through the Senate on a party-line vote.
Mr. Kennedy’s illness, while not addressed in the letter, has been a crucial backdrop of the health care debate.
Mr. Patrick applauded Mr. Kennedy’s plan to quickly fill the seat.
“It’s typical of Ted Kennedy to be thinking ahead, and about the people of Massachusetts, when the rest of us are thinking about him,” Mr. Patrick said.
An open Senate seat is bound to open a barrage of political jockeying in the Democrat-rich Massachusetts where public offices from state treasurer to U.S. representative have all been viewed as launching pads for ambitious pols.
President Obama’s victory in 2008 ultimately opened four Senate seats, as he vacated one from Illinois and he brought three of his Senate colleagues (Joseph R. Biden Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ken Salazar) with him to the White House.
The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which is more popularly known for establishing popular election of U.S. senators in 1913, requires that governors set a process for filling vacant Senate seats.
Mr. Obama, who is vacationing with his family, did not have plans to visit Mr. Kennedy, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. He said the last time the senator and the president talked was in early June.