BOSTON (AP) - Democratic and Republican lawmakers are gearing up for a contentious public hearing over a bill that would allow Gov. Deval Patrick to name a temporary replacement for the late Sen. Kennedy's vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Before his death last month from brain cancer, Kennedy sent a letter to Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo to ask lawmakers to change state law to allow an interim Senate appointment to serve until a special election can be held.
Patrick, who has scheduled the Senate election for Jan. 19, supports the change saying Massachusetts needs two voices in the Senate during the next five months.
Key Democrats in the Senate - including Majority Leader Harry Reid and John Kerry, D-Mass. - also support the interim appointment as they prepare for debate on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
But Republicans point out that just five years ago, the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts House and Senate changed the state 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.
Previously, the governor was allowed to appoint a nominee until the next general election. As part of the 2004 change, Democratic lawmakers also blocked the possibility of Romney naming an interim senator.
Neither DeLeo nor Murray have said whether they support changing the law.
Tarah Donoghue, communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, said the GOP is urging activists to attend the hearing. The party is also circulating an online petition gathering names of those opposed to the bill via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.
"We are certainly organizing our concerned activist community so they can be heard at next week's hearing," she said. "Democrats want to change the law in their favor for the second time in five years."
Donoghue said opposition to the change extends beyond the borders of Massachusetts, noting that "Republicans nationwide are outraged about what's happening" here.
"We don't think it's right for Democrats to manipulate the law," she said.
John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, rejected the charge of hypocrisy. The situation in 2009 is substantially different from 2004, he countered, including Kennedy's request that the governor extract a promise from the person he appoints not to run in the special election.
"This debate shouldn't be about what happened in 2004," Walsh said. "Really, the debate is what's good for the voters in 2009 going forward."
Patrick said the bill would include Kennedy's request that the person not run in the special election, but he conceded he couldn't legally block the appointee from changing his or her mind.
The focus of the hearing is a bill filed by Rep. Robert Koczera, D-New Bedford, that tries to get around the problem by only allowing the governor to name an interim senator after the deadline for qualifying for the special election has passed.
Walsh said opponents are focused only on what they say is the Democrats' shift in position and not on the substantive question of whether Massachusetts should go without two voices in the U.S. Senate during key debates this fall.
"The people of Massachusetts should have the benefit of two full Senate staffs to help with constituent services," Walsh said. "It's a reasonable request."
The hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday in Gardner Auditorium at the Statehouse.
The vacant Senate seat has drawn interest from lawmakers and a former professional baseball player.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley formally announced her candidacy last week. Kennedy's nephew, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, has not said if he will run.
Other potential Democratic candidates include U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, John Tierney and Stephen Lynch. Potential Republican candidates include former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and state Sen. Scott Brown.
Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is weighing an independent campaign.