After Kennedy's death, what happens to healthcare?

With one less vote in the Senate, Democrats will have a harder time passing the late senator's biggest priority

Published August 26, 2009 1:25PM (EDT)

 Sen. Ted Kennedy's absence from the Senate had already hampered the push for one of his most cherished causes, healthcare reform. Now, his death may prove to be even more of an obstacle.

It's uncomfortable to contemplate so soon after his passing, but there is a cold logic to the math now at work: Once, the Democrats had 60 senators, enough to defeat a filibuster if they all stuck together. (Kennedy hadn't been voting much due to his illness -- same with Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. -- but he had come to the Senate floor for the really big votes.)

Now, they're down to 59, and most likely will be until early next year; Massachusetts law doesn't allow the governor to appoint even a temporary replacement, and requires a special election to be held between 145 and 160 days after a seat opens up. This appears to be the exact problem Kennedy was thinking of when he sent a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and other state lawmakers last month in which he asked for a change in the law to allow for a temporary appointment by the governor.

It's too late to make that change now, and though Democrats will almost certainly try to invoke Kennedy as a reason to work harder to pass reform legislation, their task just got more difficult. Now, they'll have to peel off an additional Republican vote in the Senate, which will be no easy feat, especially since they may already need a couple defectors to guard against the possibility that a Democrat like Montana Sen. Max Baucus or North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad balks. And the concessions that would likely be involved might further alienate liberal House Democrats, who are already unhappy about the more moderate turn the bill is taking,

There is, of course, the possibility that progress on healthcare could simply be delayed an additional couple of months, until Kennedy's successor is elected. There are reasons that Democrats would want to avoid that, though -- first of all, it means going even further past the deadlines that President Obama and congressional leadership set to get the bill done, and it means having to hold the vote just as an election year begins.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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