PLAYING BY DIFFERENT RULES…. Ted Kennedy’s death brought the Senate Democratic caucus down to 59 seats. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) would love to fill the vacancy, but can’t.

In 2004, state lawmakers, worried about Mitt Romney choosing John Kerry’s replacement, passed a measure to leave Senate vacancies empty until a special election is held within five months. In August, Kennedy, aware of his limited time remaining, asked that the law be changed — empowering Patrick to fill a vacancy immediately with an interim senator, with a special election to follow soon after.

Now, Kerry, Patrick, President Obama’s grassroots political organizing arm (Organizing for America), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, unions, and the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation all want the Democratic majorities in the state legislature to change the law back to its pre-2004 wording. State lawmakers, however, “remain wary.”

Within the solidly Democratic Massachusetts political establishment, there’s widespread desire to fill the vacancy with a placeholder who can give the state a second Democratic vote in the Senate until a replacement for Kennedy is selected in the January special election. But the idea of scrapping the state’s 2004 succession law — and the message it would send to voters — is troubling many lawmakers and giving them pause. […]

Overriding that law so soon afterwards with another one, again with an overt political design—to provide a possibly critical vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s agenda this fall—is proving too much for some legislators to swallow.

“Should our loyalty be to being protective of the democratic process rather than to our partisan positions?” asked Democratic state Sen. Stephen Buoniconti. “A lot of members are uncomfortable and leaning toward saying we did a good job in 2004.”

It’s not a ridiculous argument. Any honest analysis recognizes that this is about politics, and partisan politics at that. If Romney were still governor, the effort wouldn’t be under consideration. I tend to think the mistake was in 2004, and the state can put things right in 2009, but I can also appreciate why some may see this as unseemly. A Republican state lawmaker said, “I think there are many senators and many representatives who realize to reverse direction now is going to be viewed exactly for what it is — partisan shenanigans.” He’s not wrong.

Indeed, it’s the kind of brash politics that Democrats tend to avoid and Republicans tend to embrace. But that’s the part of this I can’t quite get around — if we were in a period of Republican ascendency, and the Senate GOP caucus had 59 votes after a beloved conservative Texan died, Rick Perry wanted to fill the vacancy in advance of an important vote but was restricted by a recent change to state law, and there were large Republican majorities in the Texas House and Senate, is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that they’d change the law in a heartbeat? Concerns about how this might “look” would be deemed irrelevant?

Democrats who balked would be branded as anti-Texas for insisting that the state had one senator during a time of crisis instead of two.

This isn’t entirely hypothetical. Remember, in recent years, Republicans in Texas, Georgia, and Colorado all launched re-redistricting efforts, redrawing the boundaries mid-decade to give the GOP an edge in their respective congressional delegations. It was a remarkable abuse of the process and a breathtaking example of “partisan shenanigans.” They did it anyway.

Dems and Republicans often seem to play by different rules.

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.