BOSTON — Cancer-stricken Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has asked Massachusetts leaders to change state law to allow a speedy replacement if it becomes necessary for him to surrender his seat, fearing a months-long vacancy would deny Democrats a crucial vote on President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul.
In a note to Gov. Deval Patrick and other state leaders, Kennedy asked that lawmakers allow the governor to appoint an interim replacement pending election of a successor, to ensure there would not be a period with a vacancy. The current law requires a special election to be held within five months.
"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," he wrote.
Health care has been Kennedy's signature issue. Although Democrats hold a potentially filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, the fate of a sweeping health-care bill could hinge on a single vote and some moderate Democrats have been wavering. Another Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has been seriously ill and often absent.
Kennedy's letter acknowledges that the state changed its law in 2004 to require a special election be held 145 to 160 days after the vacancy. At the time, Democrats -- with a majority in both chambers -- were concerned because then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney had the power to fill the vacancy that would have been created had Democratic Sen. John Kerry been elected president.
The letter was sent Tuesday, but Kennedy aides insist there is no material change in his condition since he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in May 2008. Kennedy was initially treated with surgery at Duke University Medical Center, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
The 77-year-old has been convalescing at his homes in Washington and in Hyannis Port, as well as a rental property in Florida, but his absence from last week's funeral on Cape Cod for his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, prompted a flurry of questions about his own health.