Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a poignant acknowledgment of his mortality amid a critical time in the national health care debate, has privately asked the governor and legislative leaders to change the succession law to guarantee that Massachusetts will not lack a Senate vote in the event of his death.
In a personal, sometimes wistful letter sent Tuesday to Governor Deval L. Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Kennedy asks that Patrick be given the authority to appoint someone to the seat temporarily while voters choose a new senator in a special election.
While Kennedy, who is battling cancer, does not specifically mention his illness or the health reform debate raging in Washington, the implication from his letter is clear: He is trying to make sure that the leading cause of his life -- better health coverage for all -- advances in the event of his death.
Kennedy said in his letter, which was obtained by the Globe, that he supports the current law, which gives voters the power to fill a Senate vacancy. But he said the state and country need two Massachusetts senators.
"I strongly support that law and the principle that the people should elect their senator,” Kennedy wrote. ''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.''
Under a 2004 law, if Kennedy were to die or step down, Massachusetts voters would select his successor through a special election, to be held within five months after the vacancy. But the law makes no provisions for Massachusetts to be represented in the Senate in the interim. In the meantime, President Obama's controversial plan to overhaul the nation's health care system -- whose fate may hinge on one or two votes -- could come before Congress.
"I am now writing to you about an issue that concerns me deeply -- the continuity of representation for Massachusetts should a vacancy occur," Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy, in his letter, also urged the governor, in order to ensure a fair special election, to obtain an "explicit personal commitment" from his appointee not to seek the office on a permanent basis.
Separately, a Kennedy family confidant, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the letter was private, said the senator's wife, Vicki Kennedy, is not interested in being a temporary appointee or running in a special election.
“Her focus is her husband and her family,” the confidant said. “To her, there is only one Senator Kennedy."
DeLeo and Murray, in a joint statement to the Globe, did not address the substance of Kennedy's request, saying, "We have great respect for the senator and what he continues to do for our Commonwealth and our nation. It is our hope that he will continue to be a voice for the people of Massachusetts as long as he is able."
Patrick said in a statement: "It's typical of Ted Kennedy to be thinking ahead, and about the people of Massachusetts, when the rest of us are thinking about him. Diane and I continue to pray for the restoration of the Senator’s health and the comfort of his family."
Kennedy advisers were adamant that the timing of the letter did not reflect any imminent emergency in the health of the senator, who has been battling brain cancer since May 2008. Rather, it was sent this week after the Globe began making inquiries to key Beacon Hill officials over murmurings that some politicians were pushing for a change in the law.
Kennedy aides said the senator never liked the five-month vacancy that was created by the 2004 law, but his dislike took on new urgency not only because of his illness, but because Senate Democrats could need every vote possible on health care.
“If it goes down to the wire and Massachusetts has only one senator, that’s a problem,” the family confidant said, reflecting the thinking of Kennedy.
That confidant stressed that even with his deteriorating health, Kennedy continues to speak with staff and Senate colleagues – and if his vote is needed while he is alive, there exists every possibility he would fly to Washington again to cast it.
Still, Kennedy's letter is a candid acknowledgment that his long Senate career may be coming to an end, an historic development for both Massachusetts and the nation. He is the last of three Kennedy brothers whose careers greatly helped define the post-war Democratic politics.
"For almost forty-seven years, I have had the privilege of representing the people of Massachusetts in the United States Senate," Kennedy wrote in his letter. "I am proud of the contribution of our Commonwealth has made to the great debates of our time and our national history."
Serving in the Senate, he wrote, "has been -- and still is -- the greatest honor of my public life."
Advisers, including Senator John F. Kerry, began discussions several months ago about pushing for a change in the state law. Kennedy's letter was drafted in early July, at a time when he was writing several other letters, including a private note to the pope that Obama hand-delivered. The letter to state lawmakers was kept secret until this week.
Kerry said that Kennedy had been considering this issue since the early summer.
''It is something he talked to me about some time ago,'' he said in a interview.
Kerry rejected any notion that the letter signaled an immediate end to Kennedy's nearly half-century in office, insisting that Kennedy has been active in shaping the health care legislation in recent weeks.
''I don't think this signals anything,'' Kerry said. ''He has been fully engaged ... If [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid required 60 votes tomorrow, Ted Kennedy would be on a plane and be down in the Senate to vote.''
Kerry added that he speaks with the senator regularly and visited him several weeks ago at Kennedy's Hyannis Port home.
Kennedy's request puts Massachusetts lawmakers in a delicate position. On one hand, his personal appeal is likely to have some sway. But resistance on Beacon Hill to tinkering with the 2004 law is strong, with Democratic lawmakers nervous about being accused of engineering a self-serving change to help their party.
Massachusetts governors used to have the power to fill Senate vacancies -- as happens in many other states -- until the Democratically controlled Legislature made the change five years ago. Lawmakers did not want to give then-governor Mitt Romney the ability to fill Kerry's seat with a Republican if Kerry won the presidency.
Patrick, meanwhile, has dismissed past suggestions that the state change the law back to give him the power to fill a Senate vacancy. Those who would run for Kennedy's seat, including, potentially, several US representatives and Attorney General Martha Coakley, could also put pressure on state lawmakers to resist changing the law, out of concern that toying with the special election could somehow damage their prospects.
In Washington, there are increasing concerns among Democrats and health care advocates over Kennedy's absence from Capitol Hill. His voice has often been one of the loudest and most influential on health care.
The Democratic caucus's 60-vote majority is tenuous already, with several moderate Democrats having expressed skepticism about the health care bill. Kennedy's having not attended the funeral of his sister, Eunice, last week heightened concerns that he would be unable to return to the Senate for a vote.
Susan Milligan of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.