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Drive to fill Kennedy's Senate seat gains steam

Associated Press | 9/2/2009, 5:25 a.m.

The push to name a successor to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy gained momentum Monday, with state lawmakers scheduling a hearing on whether to allow an appointee to serve until a special election in January.

Gov. Deval Patrick also said Monday that Kennedy’s widow, Vicki Kennedy, told him she does not want to be appointed as an interim replacement.

“Mrs. Kennedy is not interested in the position,” Patrick said, referring to the interim post.

Before he died last week, Kennedy had asked Massachusetts lawmakers to change state law to let the governor name an interim appointee to serve until voters can choose a permanent replacement. As it stands, Massachusetts law does not allow an interim appointee.

“This is the only way to ensure that Massachusetts is fully represented,” Patrick said, but cautioned that “I don’t think by any means it is a certainty it will happen.”

Patrick said he agreed with Kennedy that the state needs two voices in the Senate during the intervening five months. State law requires a special election between 145 and 160 days after a vacancy; the special election is set for Jan. 19, 2010.

Patrick said he has heard from top Democrats in Washington, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., both of whom support the change allowing an appointee. Senate Democrats say they need as many votes as they can during the debate on President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Patrick, a Democrat and friend of Obama’s, had previously expressed support for the change. He declined to say whom he might name as interim senator.

Lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts House and Senate announced Monday they would hold a hearing Sept. 9 on a bill that would allow the interim appointment.

The speedy scheduling of the hearing was the clearest sign yet that lawmakers might change the law.

Democrats are facing charges of hypocrisy from critics who point out that just five years ago, Democrats changed the law to block then-Gov. Mitt Romney from naming a fellow Republican to fill the seat if Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, won his White House campaign.

Before that change, the governor was allowed to appoint a nominee until the next general election. As part of the change, Democratic lawmakers also blocked the possibility of Romney naming an interim senator.

“Changing the rules in the middle of the game is fundamentally wrong,” said state Rep. Brad Jones, the Republican leader in the Massachusetts House.

The race to fill Kennedy’s seat is expected to be crowded.

The biggest question is whether another Kennedy will jump into the race. While family aides to Vicki Kennedy have said she is not interested in replacing her husband, she has not publicly taken herself out of the running.

Kennedy’s nephew, former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, has also been suggested as a possible candidate, but has not said whether he is interested in running for the seat, which was also once held by another uncle, former President John F. Kennedy.