The Massachusetts Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to eliminate term limits for Senate President Karen E. Spilka, abolishing a decades-old rule with effectively no debate on the floor and extending indefinitely the tenure of one of Beacon Hill’s most powerful leaders.
The measure’s 32-6 approval, while widely expected, faced no public resistance in a chamber where members are routinely willing to engage in discussion on the floor and air opposition to various bills, even in the face of certain defeat.
The term-limit measure eliminates language from the chamber’s governing rules that bars anyone in the 40-seat body from holding the president’s office “for more than eight consecutive years.” The Senate had first adopted the limit 30 years ago under then-Senate President William Bulger, who, with roughly 18 years in the post, ultimately served longer than any president in state history.
Three Democrats — John Keenan of Quincy, Rebecca Rausch of Needham, and Walter Timilty of Milton — joined the Senate’s three Republicans in opposing the measure. Spilka, 70, did not vote, but said in a statement afterward that she was “grateful to my colleagues for recognizing the importance of this initiative.”
“The integrity of the Senate has always been my top priority as Senate President, and it is my honor to lead this body,” the Ashland Democrat said. “The adoption of this amendment means that the Senate will be on equal footing with all the other branches of our government.”
Senator Michael Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chief and the measure’s sponsor, was the only person who spoke on the floor about it, arguing that the eight-year cap leaves the Senate president as an “outlier” among Beacon Hill leaders.
Neither the state House speaker nor the governor currently faces term limits. The Senate’s Democratic leaders argued that the limit on their president could put her or him at a disadvantage in high-profile negotiations, particularly as the president draws close to the end of the term.
“Surely, that known deadline could be a negative factor in the Senate’s hands,” said Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat.
State representatives abolished limits for the speaker eight years ago under a similar justification.
“We want the Senate to be as empowered as possible in terms of pursuing our policy priorities,” Senator Jason M. Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said Thursday before the amendment’s passage.
The proposal had drawn opposition from good government groups and advocates, who argued term limits help usher in new ideas and serve as a check against potential corruption.
“This is definitely a bad day for democracy on Beacon Hill,” said Erin Leahy, executive director of the group Act on Mass, which has pressed for more transparency in the Legislature. “To see the last of the Big Three that had term limits lose that safeguard portends a regression in . . . democratic values on Beacon Hill that I think everyone should be concerned about.”
Senator Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican who voted against the measure, said he believes both chambers should have eight-year limits to guarantee fresh leadership. But he said he opted against speaking out against the amendment because he feels “the vote spoke for itself.”
“It’s a delicate balance too,” he said, “because we don’t want to present — me in particular — that this was something against the current Senate president.”
Some in the chamber, both privately and publicly, had also heralded the importance of term limits, including Senator Michael O. Moore. The Millbury Democrat, who ultimately backed the proposal, said on Tuesday that extending a president’s tenure indefinitely could leave some members “afraid to vote their opinions, vote their districts, in fear of retribution or in fear of going against leadership.” Sitting presidents rarely face a challenge from within the caucus when seeking reelection every two years.
Spilka has yet to announce any assignments to her leadership team or the chamber’s committee chairs, positions of influence that also carry thousands of dollars in legislative stipends. Some senators had said privately this week that that uncertainty could leave some lawmakers wary of opposing an end to term limits.
State lawmakers face no cap on how long they can hold their seats, but the state’s two legislative chambers have the authority to craft their own rules, including how long their leaders can serve.
Some in the Senate argued that the eight-year limit was adopted in a different era. At the time, Bulger, then president for roughly 15 years, had faced a public challenge to his post from then-Senator (and now US Representative) Bill Keating, and supporters cast that rule package as a bid to ease the “chilling effect” that leaders’ power had on members.
Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, was a first-year Senate member in 1993, and said he has personally opposed term limits, that situation aside.
“The circumstances were a lot different at that particular point in time,” Pacheco said Thursday.
Rodrigues said he alone was the genesis for the proposal, and first spoke with Spilka about it Monday, the day he filed the amendment. He said Thursday that he first considered the benefit of eliminating the cap when Democrats caucused on Feb. 1 to discuss potential additions to the rules packages.
“It just, literally, popped into my head,” he said.
Spilka, however, did discuss it with at least one other before many senators learned about the proposal Tuesday. Senator Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat and head of the chamber’s temporary rules committee, told the Globe this week that Spilka first brought the idea to her attention.
Rodrigues also dismissed arguments from groups such as Common Cause Massachusetts, which has supported term limits for legislative leaders, that a cap is a measure of good governance.
“Do they have term limits on their position of power? I don’t know,” Rodrigues said. “As long as you’re doing a good job, and you’re providing good leadership, you should be able to stay around to provide good, consistent leadership.”
Therese Murray, the Senate’s president from 2007 to 2015 and the only leader to hit term limit, said Thursday she supported abolishing the cap, arguing that it turned her into a “lame duck” and made it more difficult to focus the chamber on the work.
“Everything I needed to get through I eventually got through. But the members know that you’re leaving, so they’re already lining up to see who the next person is going to be. You’re not concentrating on the business at hand,” she said.
Talk of eliminating the limit also isn’t new, she said. Murray said senators had come to her when she was president, urging her to “get rid of it and [for] me to stay.”
So why didn’t she?
“I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “I’m sitting there and saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of it?’”