BOSTON - Massachusetts lawmakers braced Thursday for a contentious debate on a bill allowing Gov. Deval Patrick to name an interim appointment to the Senate seat left vacant by the death last month of Edward Kennedy.
The House has scheduled a formal session for 11 a.m., with debate on the bill expected to begin around noon. A formal session was also scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in the Senate.
Democrats, who hold overwhelming majorities in both chambers, are hoping to push through the bill quickly allowing Patrick, who supports the change, to name an appointee as early as next week.
Seth Gitell, an aide to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, said his boss "is confident that members of the House will agree that Massachusetts needs two voices in the U.S. Senate."
Senate President Therese Murray, also a Democrat, has been more tight-lipped about the bill's chances in the Senate.
Massachusetts Republicans are vowing to fight the bill. They note that Democrats changed the succession law in 2004 to create a special election and block then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, from naming a temporary replacement if Sen. John Kerry won his presidential bid.
Senate Republican leader Richard Tisei said he'll object to the Senate taking up the bill. Senate rules require unanimous consent to debate a bill not already on the calendar, and the succession bill isn't listed for Thursday's session.
An objection would delay it until the Senate's next formal session. There is none scheduled for Friday. Tisei could use other parliamentary moves to delay a vote for additional days.
"I will not allow it to come up," Tisei said.
House Republican leader Rep. Bradley H. Jones Jr. said Democratic leaders likely have enough votes to pass the bill. Republicans hold just 16 of 160 House seats and five seats in the 40-member Senate.
"You can be pretty sure that they are not going to put a bill on the floor unless they have the votes," Jones said. The bill is on the calendar for the House session.
The bill would require the appointee be from the same party as the person who created the vacancy, a Democrat in the case of Kennedy's successor. Patrick has said he would require the appointee agree not to be a candidate in the special election.
Kennedy, in a letter sent to lawmakers before his death, urged the change. His Democratic colleagues in Washington, including Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada say they need all the votes they can to support Obama's health care overhaul.
Obama presidential counselor David Axelrod has also contacted Massachusetts officials, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Obama aides hope to regain a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate.
The special election is scheduled for Jan. 19. A primary is set for Dec. 8.
Those said to be under consideration for an interim appointment include former Gov. Michael Dukakis, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk Jr.; former Massachusetts Senate President Robert Travaglini, former Kennedy staff chief Nick Littlefield, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree and former state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien.
The change appears to have the backing of a majority of voters.
A WHDH-TV/Suffolk University poll found 55 percent of Massachusetts voters support changing the law to allow interim senator, with 41 percent opposed. The poll of 500 registered voters was conducted Sept. 12 through 15 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Kennedy died Aug. 25 of brain cancer.