BACK TO 60 BY NEXT WEEK?…. 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, at least not yet.

To briefly recap, 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.

State policymakers were reluctant to act, until Kennedy’s passing made the matter extremely relevant, not only to the state, but to national affairs. Yesterday, the Massachusetts state House took a step towards remedying the problem.

House lawmakers approved legislation last night that gives Governor Deval Patrick the power to appoint a temporary successor to the late Edward M. Kennedy in the US Senate, putting Massachusetts on track to have a new senator in place by next week.

The passage of the bill, by a 95-to-58 vote, was a crucial step toward filling the seat left vacant by Kennedy’s death last month and could carry major implications as Congress debates an overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

Attention now shifts to the Massachusetts state Senate, where there is a strong Democratic majority, but where Republicans hope to use parliamentary maneuvers to delay the process. The Boston Globe reported that the GOP minority “would probably exhaust their options for stalling by the middle of next week,” at which point the chamber could approve the bill.

If all goes according to plan, a bill may be on Deval Patrick’s desk as early as Wednesday, and an interim senator could be named almost immediately.

The scuttlebutt in Boston seems to be over who Patrick will pick, not over whether the legislation will become law, but of even greater importance to officials in Washington is how the U.S. Senate landscape changes if/when the Democratic caucus goes from 59 to 60 again.

How would this affect health care reform negotiations? Would Olympia Snowe still be the Senate’s most important member? Would center-right Dems consider joining with the GOP on a filibuster, even if Dems have a 60-vote majority?

Next week will be awfully interesting.

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.