Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is suffering from 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 Patrick, a Democrat, 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 only one senator for several months.
The letter is addressed to Patrick, state Senate President Therese Murray and state House Speaker Robert Deleo.
Left unsaid is the fact that the change could ensure that Democrats are not missing 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 unite to oppose a reform bill. Another Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has been seriously ill and often absent.
"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."
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 Kerry, D-Mass., would be elected president, giving then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, the chance to tap a replacement.