FILLING THE KENNEDY VACANCY…. Replacing Sen. Edward Kennedy is, to a certain extent, impossible. Nevertheless, his death leaves a vacancy in the Senate.

Just last week, Kennedy encouraged lawmakers in Massachusetts to change state law and empower Gov. Deval Patrick to immediately name an interim senator until a special election could be held. With so much on the line, Kennedy, like everyone else, realized the dangers of leaving the Senate Democratic caucus with 59 votes for five months.

What’s going to happen? The prospects are discouraging.

In the week before his death, reaction to his request on Beacon Hill 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 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 Democratic-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. […]

Even if Mr. Kennedy’s death prompts a change of heart, the state legislature is not set to return until after Labor Day.

Politico reported this morning, “[I]t appears for now that Massachusetts will be without a second senator until a special election can be held early next year…. Under the 2004 law, the governor must set a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat between 145 and 160 days after the vacancy occurs – meaning, in this case, that a special election would be held in the second half of January 2010.”

All of this is of the utmost importance, of course, because of a possible vote this year on health care reform, a fight Kennedy described as “the cause of my life.” The prospects of overcoming Republican obstructionism were difficult enough, but with 59 votes in the Democratic caucus, defeating a GOP filibuster may prove impossible, which in turn makes the reconciliation option more appealing.

One alternative is that Republicans could allow the Senate to vote on health care reform, and let majority rule dictate the outcome (the way the Senate operated for generations). Another alternative is that just one or two of Kennedy’s close, personal friends in the Senate’s GOP caucus could honor his memory, put dignity above partisanship, vote for cloture, and not let Kennedy’s death kill the cause of his life.

The chances of either of these alternatives occurring are remote.

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.