Massachusetts' top election official says it could take weeks to certify the results of the upcoming U.S. Senate special election. That delay could let President Barack Obama preserve a key 60th vote for his health care overhaul even if the Republican who has vowed to kill it wins Democrat Edward M. Kennedy's former seat.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, citing state law, says city and town clerks must wait at least 10 days for absentee ballots to arrive before they certify the results of the Jan. 19 election. They then have five more days to file the returns with his office.
Galvin bypassed the provision in 2007 so his fellow Democrats could gain a House vote they needed to override a veto of then-Republican President George W. Bush, but the secretary says U.S. Senate rules would preclude a similar rush today.
The potential delay has become a rallying point for the GOP, which argues Democrats have been twisting the rules to pass the health care bill despite public opposition. It's also prompted criticism from government watchdogs.
"We believe that elections should be by the people and for the people, and when the people have spoken, the system ought not be politicized," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar, a former member of Congress. "If the Republican wins, the person should be seated immediately. If the Democrat wins, the person should be seated immediately."
Massachusetts Democrats already changed state law last fall so the governor could appoint a fellow Democrat to fill the seat after Kennedy died in August.
Now that interim replacement, Sen. Paul G. Kirk Jr., says he will vote for the bill if given the chance, even if Republican Scott Brown beats Democrat Martha Coakley in Tuesday's special election to fill the seat permanently. Brown, a state senator, has pledged to vote against the bill; Coakley, the state attorney general, supports it.
Businessman Joseph L. Kennedy, no relation to the late senator, is also mounting an independent campaign, but he has trailed badly in public opinion polls. He, too, opposes the bill.
Kirk and Coakley represent the crucial 60th Democratic vote to prevent a filibuster of the legislation. A Brown victory would shift the chamber's balance to 59-41 — just enough for Republicans to block the legislation.
Yet passing or stopping the bill could depend on when the new senator is seated. Obama is angling to get the bill passed before he delivers his State of the Union speech, most likely in early to mid-February.
"Until a new senator is sworn in, Sen. Kirk is the senator," Coakley said.
While Galvin wrote a letter in 2007 so Democrat Niki Tsongas could assume a U.S. House seat immediately after a special election, an aide said he would not do so in the case of the upcoming Senate election.
"The Senate requires the certificate of election, which can only be issued after this period takes place," spokesman Brian McNiff said.
Democrats control the Senate, and they argue there is recent precedent for withholding a seat until local officials certify an election. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his colleagues waited 238 days before seating fellow Democrat Al Franken last year after Republicans challenged his 2008 election all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"When there is a certified winner in Massachusetts, the Senate has received appropriate papers and the vice president is available, the successor to Kennedy/Kirk will be sworn in," said Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle.
She said that could take "a week or more."
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