An ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy is urging Massachusetts' political leaders to change state law to assure his swift replacement if he has to surrender his seat.
Gov. Deval Patrick and the state's top Democratic legislative leaders did not indicate Thursday whether they would act on Kennedy's request. The legislature, currently in informal session until early September, would have to hold a public hearing and schedule a formal vote, said Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat who oversees elections.
"They are not going to entertain it very quickly," he said.
Revelation of the letter came on the heels of an announcement that the publication date of Kennedy's memoirs, originally set for early October, has been moved up to next month.
Aides downplayed any speculation that the moves signalled a worsening of the senator's health. As Massachusetts politicians debated the senator's suggestion in the media, Kennedy was enjoying an afternoon on his sailboat, according to Anthony Coley, a spokesman in the senator's Washington office.
Coley said Kennedy has been sailing "almost every day" this summer.
The letter is dated July 2 but Kennedy did not send it to Patrick until earlier this week, Coley said. He said the delay was because the senator was "preoccupied" with the final illness of his sister, Eunice Shriver. She died Aug. 11.
Norman Ornstein, a veteran Congress-watcher with the American Enterprise Institute, said that Kennedy's letter is a sign that the canny lawmaker is continuing to count votes — and is worried his party might come up short on controversial measures such as the president's proposals for overhauling health care and addressing climate change.
"It's his realization that he may not be around when all these critical votes take place," said Ornstein. "Its going to be very close."
Massachusetts is one of about six states that does not allow the governor to fill a Senate vacancy, says Ornstein. A senior adviser to the bipartisan Continuity of Government Commission — co-chaired by former senators Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican and David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat — Ornstein is a leading proponent for allowing temporary appointments to vacant congressional seats.
Ornstein began pushing Congress to consider ways to reconstitute itself after the 9/11 terror attacks eight years ago. If replacement lawmakers can't be appointed immediately, the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction in Washington could leave the nation with out a working Congress for months, Ornstein said. "That means martial law," he added.
Currently, Massachusetts law requires a special-election within five months to fill any vacancy and does not grant Patrick the power to fill the seat in the interim. In a letter to Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Kennedy said it was crucial for state residents to have "two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election."
Kennedy also asked state leaders to required that anyone appointed to the seat agree not to compete in the special election.
Kennedy's request was first reported by The Boston Globe.
Kennedy, 77, was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2008 and has been out of Washington and the public view for months — even as Congress tackles a health-care overhaul that the Democrat has called the "cause of his life." He did not attend a public funeral service for his sister, Eugene Kennedy Shriver, last week.
Passage of the health-care initiative could rest on a handful of Senate votes, and Kennedy's allies, such as Ron Pollack of Families USA, say the senator's move reflects his commitment to making the overhaul law.
"If, unfortunately, he does not live to see the key vote in the Senate," Pollack said, "he wants to make sure that his succession is handled in such a way that his legacy is truly achieved."
Kennedy's letter, dated July 2, was sent to political leaders this week. He does not address his cancer, which has required surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
"For almost 47 years, I have had the privilege of representing the people of Massachussets in the United State Senate," Kennedy wrote. He said serving "has been — and still is — the greatest honor of my public life."
Democrats control both chambers of the Massachusetts legislature by wide margins, but would face resistance to Kennedy's proposal from the GOP ranks, said Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, the top Republican in the state Senate.
The Democratic-controlled legislature changed the state's succesion law in 2004, denying then-governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, the ability to fill a Senate vacancy as Democratic Sen. John Kerry competed for the White House.
"I feel terrible for Sen. Kennedy," Tisei said. But he said it would be "very hard for the Democratic majority to change the law when they so passionately advocated" to alter it in 2004. "We shouldn't be changing the laws based on personal circumstances."
Murray and DeLeo, the legislature's top Democrats, issued a joint statement saying they hoped Kennedy would "continue to be a voice for the people of Massachusetts as long as he is able."