Ailing Kennedy Asks for Speedy Replacement Process

By Perry Bacon Jr
Thursday, August 20, 2009 8:36 AM

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is suffering from brain cancer and has been absent from the Senate for most of this year, has sent a letter (PDF) to Massachusetts electoral leaders asking for a change in state law to allow his replacement to be put in place more rapidly if his seat becomes vacant.

The letter, first obtained by the Boston Globe, Kennedy asks the state's Democrat-controlled legislature to allow Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to select a temporary replacement if a vacancy occurs. He seeks to reverse a provision under current law that says a vacant U.S. Senate seat in the state can only be filled through a special election held at least 145 days later -- which would leave the state with only one senator for months.

Though he doesn't articulate this in the letter, Kennedy's effort could assure that Democrats in the Senate are not missing a key vote should the longtime senator succumb to cancer in the middle of the debate on expanding health insurance, long one of Kennedy's passions. Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate -- when Kennedy is able to participate -- and might need all of them if the chamber's 40 Republicans unify to oppose health-care reform efforts.

Kennedy's aides said the release of the letter was not because of any decline in his physical condition. The lawmaker, who has spent much of the summer at his home on Cape Cod, has been in regular contact with some of his Senate colleagues and staff but missed last week's funeral for his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

"I strongly support that law and the principle that the people should elect their senator," Kennedy wrote in the letter, dated July 2 but only sent to state officials this week, referring to the provision calling for elections to fill vacancies. "I also believe it is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election."

In his letter -- which was addressed to Patrick, state Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. Deleo -- Kennedy calls on state leaders to get a commitment from the person who accepts the temporary appointment not to run in the special election.

The change could be controversial. Democrats in the state legislature changed the law only five years ago to require elections, as they anticipated that then-Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry could be elected president, giving then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) the chance to tap a replacement. Romney would likely have picked a Republican, but the state legislature headed off that possibility by passing the law calling for elections and then overriding his veto of it.

Democratic lawmakers at the time cast the decision to do away with appointed replacements as one that gave control over the selection of senators to voters, instead of the governor. "It is hard to see how the Democrats wouldn't pay a political price for changing their succession law again to meet a new political purpose," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which recruits and backs Republicans for Senate seats. He added, "this should not be about partisan politics, it should about ensuring the integrity and credibility of the Senate selection process."

In a joint statement, Murray and Deleo, both Democrats, were noncommittal on Kennedy's request, saying only "we have great respect for the senator and what he continues to do for our Commonwealth and our nation. It is our hope that he will continue to be a voice for the people of Massachusetts as long as he is able."

Patrick's office similarly did not take a stance on the proposal, instead releasing a statement saying, "It's typical of Ted Kennedy to be thinking ahead, and about the people of Massachusetts, when the rest of us are thinking about him."

The state's legislature is not due to return to session until next month.

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