Kennedy succession request is 'all about healthcare'

What's most important to the ailing senator is making sure someone will be in his seat to vote on a healthcare reform bill this year.

By , Contributor

By asking the Massachusetts legislature to change the way vacant US Senate seats are filled, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy is almost certainly seeking to insure that there are enough votes to pass a healthcare reform bill on Capitol Hill.

The Boston Globe reported Thursday that Senator Kennedy has asked Massachusetts lawmakers to allow the governor to appoint a temporary replacement to fill any empty senate seat. Under current law, senators can only be selected through special elections that must be held in a two-week window 145 days after the vacancy occurs.

With his request, Kennedy is likely making a political calculation.

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The final vote on healthcare reform – which Kennedy has called the “cause of my life” – is likely to happen before the end of the year. But his failing health could prevent him from attending, and Senate votes cannot be cast in absentia. He has missed Senate votes repeatedly during recent months as he battles brain cancer.

This means the Democrats could lose one certain vote in favor of health reform – a vote that could prove crucial if the political calculus becomes tight, as is possible.

Resigning would not help, either. Even if he resigned today, the 145-day rule means that the special election to replace him could not be held before January 2010.

Therefore, Kennedy is asking Massachusetts lawmakers to amend laws passed as recently as 2004 to ensure that someone is in his seat to cast an important vote on healthcare.

Kennedy is “one of the great legislative strategist of all time,” says Charles Stewart, a political scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “I have to believe that all of this is about healthcare.”

Kennedy made the request in a letter to the Massachusetts governor, Senate president, and House speaker that was made public Thursday, though it was dated July 2.

“I strongly support the law and the principle that the people should elect their Senator,” Kennedy wrote in a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo. “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.”

Kennedy has certainly weighed the impact of the work his staff – who are largely committed to healthcare reform and are experts on healthcare issues – is able to accomplish on his behalf against the benefit of having someone to vote in his place.

“There's a tradeoff between his vote and the expertise that his staff embodies,” Professor Stewart says. But he notes that with healthcare, “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the most important thing is to get 51 senators to vote in favor of something.”

The current Massachusetts law requiring a special election was established in 2004 when a democratic legislature feared that then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, would be able to appoint a replacement for Sen. John Kerry if he were elected president.

Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that forgoes gubernatorial appointments in favor of special elections to fill vacant Senate seats.

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