KENNEDY EYES NEW PROCESS FOR SUCCESSOR…. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) commitment to health care reform is unrivaled, but brain cancer is preventing the Liberal Lion from participating in the debate. Worse, there’s a question as to whether Kennedy will even be able to vote for reform if/when it reaches the Senate floor.

Kennedy is now thinking about setting the stage for his successor.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a poignant acknowledgment of his mortality at 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 when his seat becomes vacant.

In a personal, sometimes wistful letter sent Tuesday to Governor Deval L. Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Kennedy asks that Patrick be given authority to appoint someone to the seat temporarily before voters choose a new senator in a special election.

Although Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, does not specifically mention his illness or the health care debate raging in Washington, the implication of his letter is clear: He is trying to make sure that the leading cause in his life, better health coverage for all, advances in the event of his death.

In 2004, state lawmakers were worried about Mitt Romney choosing John Kerry’s replacement, in the event of Kerry presidential victory. They passed a measure to leave Senate vacancies empty until a special election is held within five months. Kennedy would now like to see that law changed — empowering Deval Patrick (D) to fill a vacancy immediately with an interim senator, with a special election to follow soon after.

As Kennedy sees it, Patrick would get an “explicit personal commitment” that the interim senator not run in the special election, so no candidate would have an advantage.

In general, tinkering with these laws, based on specific circumstances, strikes me as a bad idea, but the mistake seems to be the 2004 change. Like Jason Zengerle, I think what Kennedy is urging seems entirely reasonable. It’s unclear, however, whether state lawmakers are willing to revisit the 2004 law.

If Kennedy is unable to serve if/when reform comes to the floor, the Democratic caucus will have 59 votes. Of course, the Senate is all about collegiality and relationships, and Kennedy has many close, personal friendships with long-time Republican senators.

Ezra ponders whether someone like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), out of respect for Kennedy’s career and their decades of friendship, might do the honorable thing and vote for reform in Kennedy’s place, “to make sure that [Kennedy’s] death doesn’t kill the work of his life.”

Alas, Hatch seems to have already ruled out the possibility.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.