Kennedy Looks Toward Succession
Ailing Senator Seeks Change in Law to Avoid Delay if He Dies

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has brain cancer and has been absent from the Senate for most of the year, has asked that state law be changed so his seat could be filled more rapidly in the event of his death.

Kennedy's aides said the release of a letter seeking the change was not related to any decline in his physical condition. The 77-year-old lawmaker, who has spent much of the summer at his home on Cape Cod, has been in regular contact with Senate colleagues and his staff but missed last week's funeral for his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

The letter, first obtained by the Boston Globe, asks the state's Democratic-controlled legislature to allow Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) to select a temporary replacement should a vacancy occur. Such a move would reverse a provision in state law that says a vacant U.S. Senate seat can be filled only through a special election held at least 145 days after the seat comes open, which would leave Massachusetts with just one senator for several months.

Left unsaid in the letter is the fact that the change could ensure that Democrats do not miss a key Senate vote should Kennedy die amid the debate on health-care reform, long one of his passions. Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate with Kennedy present, and they might need every one of them if the chamber's 40 Republicans are united in opposing a reform bill.

"I strongly support that law and the principle that the people should elect their senator," Kennedy wrote in the letter, dated July 2 but 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, addressed to Patrick, state Senate President Therese Murray and state House Speaker Robert A. Deleo, Kennedy called 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 Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would be elected president, giving then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) the chance to tap a replacement. Romney would have probably picked a Republican, but the state legislature instead passed the measure calling for elections and then overrode his veto of it.

"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 supports Republicans for Senate seats. He added that "this should not be about partisan politics, it should about ensuring the integrity and credibility of the Senate selection process."

Jennifer Nassour, chairman of the state GOP, said in a statement that lawmakers "must honor Senator Kennedy's service by allowing those who sent him to the Senate to decide the next generation of leaders for Massachusetts." She added: "Do not eliminate the voter from the electoral process. The voice of the people must be heard through a timely special election, and Republicans trust the people to be informed and to make an informed choice -- rather than leave any succession to the whims of a small group of politicians."

In a joint statement, Murray and Deleo, both Democrats, were noncommittal on Kennedy's request, saying that "we have great respect for the senator and what he continues to do for our Commonwealth and our nation" and adding: "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 that "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 will return to session next month.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company