Against the Clock: Massachusetts Dems Ponder a Nuclear Option

For Democrats pushing to change Massachusetts’ Senate succession law, the timing couldn’t be much better: On the same day that a key legislative committee in Boston took up the  Democrats’ plan to allow an interim appointment, Max Baucus released his long-awaited “bipartisan” health care plan—without a single Republican endorsing it, much less saying anything nice about it.

At least for the time being, the G.O.P.’s crickets-chirping response to Baucus’ proposal spoils the illusion that Democrats will be able to win over a few Senate Republicans for any kind of health care compromise—even one as dramatically watered-down as Baucus’, which does away with the left’s cherished public option (and even the concept of a “trigger”).

And that, in turn, ratchets up the urgency for the quick addition of a 60th Democratic vote in the Senate, the magic number to choke off a Republican-led filibuster.

This is why national Democratic leaders, including Harry Reid and David Axelrod, have personally appealed to top Democrats in the Massachusetts Legislature to make sure the proposed law change—which would empower Governor Deval Patrick to appoint an interim senator until the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat in held in January—clears the State House and Senate soon.

This is not the easy task that outsiders assumed it would be when, just a week before his death, Kennedy initiated the push for the law change. Yes, the Massachusetts Legislature—like the state itself—is overwhelmingly Democratic, but there are factions and rivalries within that vast majority.

For instance, Therese Murray, the State Senate president, was a fierce backer of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries and was irked when, at the height of that campaign, Kennedy delivered a momentum-fueling endorsement to Barack Obama. She’s also not particularly close to Patrick, another Obama backer, whom she worked against in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary as a supporter of a rival campaign.

These and other grudges, Beacon Hill watchers say, have made her unwilling to rubber-stamp the law change and the Senate has proceeded very slowly.

Plus, the Legislature already expended considerable political capital earlier this year by passing a sales tax hike. With Republicans railing that the interim appointment effort is transparently political (it comes just five years after Democrats changed the law to prevent Mitt Romney from making a Senate appointment), some individual Democrats worry about inciting populist blowback.

It is in this context that Baucus’ Wednesday announcement is so significant. Massachusetts Democratic leaders believe they have the votes—barely—to get the law change through, but with the G.O.P. ready to employ a series of procedural delay tactics, it’s not clear if that support will hold. And the longer the G.O.P. can stall, the more difficult it is to justify an interim appointment, with the special election drawing closer each day.

Had, say, Olympia Snowe—generally seen as the most likely Republican in the U.S. Senate to come around on health care—signaled immediate support for Baucus’ plan, it would have provided some justification for wavering Massachusetts legislators to vote no on the law change. Look, they don’t really need 60 votes, the thinking would go, so why stick our necks out up here? If other Republicans joined Snowe, the effect would only be heightened.

Instead, Democrats in Washington can now intensify their case to their counterparts in Massachusetts. Murray will risk making a permanent enemy of the White House if she fails to deliver, and individual members will now have less wiggle room to oppose the change.

Wednesday’s events make it much more likely that, probably by next week, Patrick will be able to sign a law that will allow him to choose a new senator. Then, the question will be who he should pick.

The sentimental choice, obviously, would be Kennedy’s widow, Vicki. But she has told Patrick she’s not interested (and she also passed on running for the seat in the special election). After that, the most logical choice would be Michael Dukakis, the only living former Democratic governor or U.S. senator in Massachusetts. Dukakis, 75, has refused to comment on his potential interest—a sign that he has plenty of it.

Dukakis has a relatively close relationship with Patrick: He and his wife served as block captains in Patrick’s ’06 campaign. From a personal standpoint, it’s hard to imagine that Patrick wouldn’t like to appoint Dukakis.

If not Dukakis, there would be few obvious places for Patrick to look: Perhaps former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger, 67, would be interested; or maybe Evelyn Murphy, 70, Dukakis’ onetime lieutenant governor; or even Phil Johnston, 66, a Kennedy family friend and the former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

What is clear, though, is that Republicans in the U.S. Senate just provided the most compelling argument yet to Democrats in the Massachusetts Legislature for changing the law. Against the Clock: Massachusetts Dems Ponder a Nuclear Option