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Edward Kennedy’s Gift to the Senate — and the Country

After a brief protest from Massachusetts Republicans in their state Senate, the commonwealth is on the verge of changing its law to allow Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to appoint an interim Senator until the special election to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat can be held in January.

The short-term implications of the move are clear: getting the 60th Democrat in place before the crucial bargaining and votes occur on health reform, financial regulation and climate change. The short-term costs are also clear: Massachusetts’ move smacked of rank hypocrisy, since the law being revised was slapped into place by Democrats quickly in 2004 to prevent then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) from appointing a Republican to fill the Senate vacancy if Sen. John Kerry (D) won the presidency.

But let’s step back and look at the long term. The plan soon to be in place was proposed by Kennedy as he neared his end — and he gave a wonderful parting gift to the American people. Kennedy provided a balanced and reasonable way to clean up the crazy quilt and often dysfunctional processes we use to fill vacancies temporarily in the Senate while maintaining the continuity of our government. The 17th Amendment that provided direct election for Senators also left it up to states to decide if governors could make temporary appointments to Senate seats. Most states allow appointments until the next general election, which can mean a full two years for the non-elected Senator. A handful of states block any appointments and require special elections no matter the circumstances of the vacancy.

The issue of what to do with vacant Senate seats exploded on the national scene in January, when there were five vacancies in the Senate — the seats of Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), along with two Senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who resigned to take Cabinet posts in the incoming Obama administration, and the deadlocked seat in Minnesota eventually filled by Al Franken (D). With 95 Senators, the bar for cloture to block a filibuster fell from 60 to 57 — but because all five were Democrats, the ability to overcome the filibuster dropped dramatically.

At the same time, the scandal of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s attempts to sell the Senate seat vacated by Obama (and the ham-handed efforts of Roland Burris to grab the prize), along with the embarrassing fandango of New York Gov. David Paterson (D) as he sought to fill Clinton’s vacant Senate seat, caused a backlash against appointments, and a vigorous effort by Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin — a populist haven where no appointments are allowed — to amend the Constitution to ban any appointments at any time.

Now the issue is front and center again because of Kennedy and the extended search by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) to fill the seat vacated by Mel Martinez (R) — a seat Crist himself is seeking in the November 2010 election.

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