WASHINGTON — As mourners began to gather in Boston Thursday to say farewell to Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts officials began moving to fill his seat quickly — but possibly with someone from outside the Kennedy family for the first time in 56 years.
His widow, Vicki, was mentioned by political insiders as a possible successor, but family members discouraged such talk.
No one in the next generation of Kennedys, including former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, the oldest son of Robert F. Kennedy, is seen as a serious contender. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., would have to give up his seat and move to Massachusetts to succeed his father.
Edward Kennedy died late Tuesday and his body was transported to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum Thursday, where it is to lie in repose until Saturday, when a funeral mass will start at 10:30 a.m. at Boston's Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica, attended by President Barack Obama and the nation's four living ex-presidents.
Even as the funeral preparations went forward, however, the political world buzzed with talk of who'd fill the seat, and whether it would pass from the Kennedy family, which has controlled it since John F. Kennedy was elected in 1952.
He left the seat in December 1960, after being elected president, and family friend Benjamin Smith was appointed until Edward Kennedy was old enough to run in 1962. Kennedy, who turned 30 that year, the minimum age for a U.S. senator, held it until his death Tuesday night at age 77.
Kennedy himself is partly responsible for the talk. A week before he died, he released a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and state legislative leaders urging them to seek a change in state law that would allow Patrick to quickly name a successor.
"As I look ahead," Kennedy wrote, "I am convinced that enabling the governor to fill a Senate vacancy through an interim appointment followed by a special election would best serve the people of our Commonwealth and country should a vacancy occur." He also urged officials to get an "explicit personal commitment" from the appointee "not to become a candidate in the special election."
The effort gained momentum Thursday. "I'd like the legislature to take up the bill quickly and get it to my desk and I will sign it," Patrick told the Boston Globe.
The current law was enacted in 2004 by the Democrat-dominated legislature to prevent Republican Gov. Mitt Romney from naming a successor if Sen. John Kerry had beaten President George W. Bush. A Democratic legislature could easily undo it.
Otherwise, a primary probably would be held in November or December to let the parties pick candidates, followed by a special election in January. The seat would remain vacant until someone was elected.
Kennedy, as well as Senate Democratic leaders, thought that every Democratic vote would be crucial when Congress returns from its summer recess on Sept. 8 and begins considering health care.
Democrats control 59 seats, and 60 votes are needed to cut off a filibuster. However, ailing West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd has been absent in recent months, and as a result, Democrats need to find two Republicans to help push legislation, assuming that all members of their own caucus go along.
The presence of a Kennedy successor, also would provide another boost — as a reminder of how badly Kennedy wanted to see health legislation enacted this year.
Naming Vicki Kennedy to the seat would fill that need, said Thomas Whelan, an associate professor of social science at Boston University.
Appointing widows and widowers is a long Senate tradition. Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey was succeeded by his wife, Muriel, in 1978, and more recently, Missouri's Jean Carnahan took the place of her husband, Mel, after he died in a 2000 plane crash.
Vicki Kennedy is well known on Capitol Hill as a savvy, knowledgeable political insider. "She could cast important votes and remind everyone what an important issue this is," said Whelan, "and this would really complete his career."
Not everyone agreed. Any Democrat who got the seat would provide a reliable health care vote, and Vicki Kennedy's political influence has been behind the scenes and untested in the public arena, noted Gary Rose, a professor of government and politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Rose said former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, now 75, "makes more sense" as a choice. Whelan, too, noted of Dukakis, that "health care has been his passion."
Not expected to be in the mix is Joseph Kennedy. The former congressman was seen as a favorite for governor in 1998 and 2002 but declined to make the run; it was thought at the time he would be hurt by news about the annulment of his first marriage. He now heads the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp., which helps low-income consumers buy lower-cost oil.
More likely is that the next Massachusetts senator will come from a long list of state politicos who've been waiting years for this chance. Not since 1984, when John Kerry succeeded Paul Tsongas, has the state had a wide-open race for a U.S. Senate seat.
Attorney General Martha Coakley is the best-known statewide official thought to be under consideration, but there's a long roster of House of Representatives members, including Boston-area Reps. Stephen Lynch and Michael Capuano, as well as former Rep. Martin Meehan, now the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Reps. Barney Frank and Ed Markey may be in the mix, but both are major House players on crucial bills — Frank heads the House Financial Services Committee, and Markey is a leader on environmental legislation.
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