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Joan Vennochi

Pure power politics

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / August 23, 2009

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LET’S BE HONEST. Ted Kennedy’s last wish is not about principle. It’s about politics.

He said it’s about giving Massachusetts voters a voice in Washington. But it’s really about giving Senate President Harry Reid 60 votes on health care reform.

Kennedy did not worry about leaving Massachusetts voiceless in 2004, when he asked lawmakers to repeal a law that gave the governor the power to fill a Senate vacancy. He did not want Governor Mitt Romney to appoint a Republican if Senator John Kerry won the White House. Massachusetts legislators did what Kennedy wanted. They passed a new law, calling for a special election within five months of any vacancy.

Now Kennedy is asking those lawmakers to partially reverse themselves and authorize the governor to appoint an interim senator for five months, should he die or resign. His request puts pressure on Governor Patrick and the Democrats who control the Legislature. Bay State voters, already angry over tax increases and assorted examples of government incompetence, will view this as another example of raw politics as usual, because that’s what it is. If the governor were a Republican, Kennedy would not be trying to change the law.

Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago. He collapsed in Washington on Inauguration Day. If he resigned then, Massachusetts already would have a new senator in place to vote on health care. But Kennedy didn’t resign, leaving his party at this sad crossroads. Because of the partisan politics of five years ago, Massachusetts will be without a US senator for five months; or, in a classic show of political hypocrisy, it will have a surrogate senator whose appointment was engineered as a thank you gift to Kennedy.

The quest to change the law on Kennedy’s behalf might have started as a way to handpick a successor. According to one political source, a first scenario that was floated would have authorized the governor to appoint an interim senator until 2010, when Kennedy’s term runs out. That could have kept the seat in friendly hands, perhaps until another Kennedy - one of Joe Kennedy’s sons? - was ready to run. That idea did not advance. The fallback position was expressed in the letter Kennedy sent last week. He asked legislative leaders to authorize the governor to appoint an interim senator, who would make an “explicit personal commitment’’ not to seek the office on a permanent basis.

For now, Kennedy’s move looks as if it’s all about health care reform. From a political perspective, it shows how much President Obama and the Democrats have lost their way. They are so desperate, they must squeeze the last drop of power out of a dying man. They need the last vestiges of political capital that still flow from Camelot, in the one state where remnants of that dream still live on. They will embarrass a governor, put pressure on a state legislature, and stir the cynicism of an already cynical electorate. And even with Kennedy’s vote, or that of a surrogate, the Democrats still might not have the filibuster-proof 60-vote margin they seek.

For Democrats, the end justifies the means. They believe health care reform is so important to the country, not to mention to Obama’s agenda, that some version must be passed. Since it is Kennedy’s signature domestic cause, it makes sense to look to him as the standard-bearer, in sickness or in health. But if health care reform breaks down strictly along party lines, as now seems likely, doesn’t it betray one part of Kennedy’s Senate legacy?

Kennedy could reach across the aisle and formulate immigration reform policy with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. He could get beyond deep ideological differences and call Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah his friend. He is the master of consensus. Yet what is happening now has nothing to do with finding common ground.

It’s pure power politics. To pull it off, the Democrats need every vote, and that includes Kennedy’s, one way or another.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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