After hours of testy debate, the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation allowing Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint an interim successor to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
The House voted 95-58; the measure goes to the state Senate, which could take up the proposal on Friday. But Republicans have threatened to try to delay a vote, and, through procedural maneuvers, could do so for several days.
Patrick, a Democrat, has said that if both chambers approved the measure, he would appoint a temporary successor to Kennedy within days. The appointee would serve until a special election on Jan. 19, and could play a crucial role in the fate of the health care bill making its way through Congress.
With the Kennedy seat empty, Democrats in the Senate are not assured the 60 votes necessary to pass the legislation. They could use procedural shortcuts to get the bill passed, but that could cause havoc in the Senate.
The state Senate president, Therese Murray, a Democrat, has remained publicly noncommittal on the proposal despite calls from the Obama administration and from Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Kennedy’s widow. The state Senate, also heavily Democratic, is said to remain divided on the issue.
Under current law, the Kennedy seat would remain empty until the special election. But shortly before his death last month, Kennedy asked the Legislature to change the law and allow Patrick to name a temporary successor, arguing in a letter that Massachusetts needed full representation in Congress.
Republicans and even a number of Democrats have attacked the proposal as overly partisan. Governors here had the power to fill Senate vacancies until 2004, when the Democratic majority in the Legislature changed the law to require a special election. Democrats worried then that if Sen. John Kerry were elected president, Gov. Mitt Romney would appoint another Republican.
Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, a Republican, said that if the Legislature approved the change, it would damage its reputation and become “a pawn in the Washington game.”
But Rep. Cory Atkins, a Democrat, said Massachusetts could not afford to let Kennedy’s seat stay empty even for a few months. “We are truly outnumbered on the floors of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “We need every single vote.”
The appointee would not be bound by the legislation to stay out of the special election, but Patrick has said he would seek an “explicit personal commitment” from the appointee not to seek Kennedy’s seat permanently.
Patrick has been recovering from hip surgery for the last week and has not publicly discussed possible candidates for a temporary appointment. But some Democrats have been lobbying for Michael S. Dukakis, the former governor and 1988 presidential nominee, who teaches at Northeastern University.
Other possible candidates include Scott Harshbarger, a former state attorney general, and Paul G. Kirk Jr., chairman of the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston.