Sen. Edward Kennedy's voice has been sadly missing in the debate on overhauling the nation's health-care system. The 77-year old Democrat, who is suffering from brain cancer, has missed nearly all of the Senate business this year.
But one instance where his voice has been heard -- his recent suggestion on how best to succeed him in the Senate (should it be necessary) -- is one that, frankly, smacks of politics as usual.
And not in a good way.
Kennedy has made it known that he wants a change in Massachusetts law regarding Senate succession. Currently the law calls for a special election to be held within 145 to 160 days of a Senate vacancy. Kennedy wants the law changed to give the governor -- in this case, Democrat Deval Patrick -- the power to name a temporary successor, one who would pledge not to run in the special election. A Kennedy statement said the state should not go some five months with a Senate vacancy.
But the Massachusetts governor used to have the power to name a successor -- until the Democratic state legislature removed it in 2004. You see, back then, there was a Republican in the governor's office -- Mitt Romney -- and Democrats feared that he would name a Republican to succeed Sen. John Kerry (D) were Kerry to have been elected president. So they changed the law.
And now that there is a Democratic governor -- and a potential Senate vacancy -- Kennedy and some Democrats want to change the law again.
Yes, the Democrats will probably need every vote they can get if they hope to pass a health-care bill. With all the rancor and yelling we've seen since Congress went on its August break, Democrats may be hard-pressed to find many Republican votes to count on. Kennedy, plus Sen. Robert Byrd (WV) -- whose health is also somewhat tenuous -- give the Democrats 60 votes. It's understandable that they would not want to wait five months to fill a vacancy.
But to change it back to where it was would compound the blatantly political move the Democrats pushed through in '04. It would be a mistake, and reflect badly on the Kennedy legacy.
Plus, there already is a plethora of appointed senators -- in Delaware, to replace Vice President Joe Biden; in New York, to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; in Colorado, to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar; and in Illinois, to replace President Barack Obama. And we all know how well the Illinois situation turned out.
And there's two more in the mix. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) may be days away from naming a successor to Sen. Mel Martinez (R), who is quitting next month. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) will be choosing someone to replace Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), who is leaving the Senate to challenge Perry for the governorship.
All of those instances have some measure of controversy. But the argument here is not about whether a governor has the right to fill a vacancy. It's about changing the law for a clear political reason. And in the case of Massachusetts, it would be the second time in five years.