Massachusetts succession law calls for a special election to fill a vacant US Senate seat between 145 and 160 days after it becomes open.  Recently Kennedy sent a letter to Gov. Duval Patrick asking that this be waived and that the state legislature allow the governor to appoint someone to fill the seat, provided the person not run for re-election. 

It wasn’t clear until this morning what Patrick would do, because he was worried about the political impact of such a move.  I’ve heard speculation this morning that it will be complicated to change the succession laws after the death of an incumbent, though Patrick has now said that he would sign a bill allowing an immediate appointment.  The Massachusetts legislature does not reconvene until after labor day.

The political impact on Patrick, whose poll numbers are flagging, could be tough:

[T]he effort to find a quick replacement for Mr. Kennedy may prove complicated. In the week before his death, reaction in Boston to his request ranged from muted to hostile. The state’s Democrats found themselves in the awkward position of being asked to reverse their own 2004 initiative calling for special elections in such instances.

Until that year, Massachusetts law had called for the governor to appoint a temporary replacement if a Senate seat became vacant. But when Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, was running for president in 2004, the Democrat-controlled State Legislature wanted to deny the governor at the time — Mitt Romney, a Republican — the power to name a successor if Mr. Kerry won. The resulting law requires a special election within 145 to 160 days after the vacancy occurs.

“The hypocrisy is astounding,” the state House minority leader, Bradley H. Jones Jr., told The Boston Globe on Thursday. “If we had a Republican governor right now, would we be getting the same letter?”

What does this mean for a health care bill?  Well, if the legislature does not for some reason pass such a waiver, there won’t be 60 Democratic votes in the Senate until after a special election.  Which means the Republicans could filibuster any health care bill.  So passage through the Senate would mean:

  1. Waiting 145-160 days
  2. Getting Olympia Snowe on board with something (Stimulus II, Electric Boogaloo)
  3. Reconciliation

Of the three, I’d say the most likely is #2 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that there still aren’t 50 members of the Senate who will support the public option in Kennedy’s HELP bill, and polling indicates that the country doesn’t believe the Democrats should pass a health care bill without any Republicans on board.  The White House has proven itself to be historically sensitive to those optics far more than they have worried about losing the base, and I don’t see any reason why that should stop now.  I would lay odds this will happen regardless of what the Massachusetts legislature does.

So I’d say going forward, we’re likely to get a bill out of the Senate that’s quite a bit weaker than Kennedy’s HELP committee bill for the sake of getting Republicans on board.  Rather than coming together to pass a better bill in his honor, Democrats are likely to take up Robert Byrd’s call to name the bill after him, then gut his bill use his legacy to get it passed.