Democrats scrambled on Thursday to quickly fill the seat of Senator Edward Kennedy, to shore up President Barack Obama's faltering effort to rally Congress behind an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system.
Members of America's most storied political dynasty said a private farewell to the Kennedy patriarch at a Mass in their Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, compound before accompanying his body to Boston for public tributes on Friday at the John F. Kennedy presidential library and for the funeral on Saturday.
Apart from depriving Congress of its most effective champion of healthcare reform, Kennedy's death on Tuesday cost his Democratic party its essential 60th vote in the Senate, the number needed to beat Republican tactical blocking maneuvers.
Massachusetts law would leave the seat open for five months at which time a special election could be held. But, as he was dying, Kennedy asked state lawmakers to allow Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to name a temporary replacement.
Following Kennedy's death, Patrick and Senator John Kerry called on state legislators to act quickly on that request.
It's a particularly timely request at a time when there are such profoundly important proposals pending in the Congress right now, Patrick told reporters.
Without Kennedy's vote and leadership, Democrats face the choice of trying to push through his vision of overhauling the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system or finding a compromise that will appeal to Republicans and conservative Democrats.
FRACTIOUS PUBLIC DEBATE
Kennedy had said providing health insurance to all Americans was the cause of my life and his absence as he battled brain cancer may have contributed to the fractious nature of public debate on healthcare in August.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has often expressed regret about Kennedy's absence, saying he would have been able to hammer out a bipartisan healthcare deal.
Congress will return in September to work on a healthcare overhaul plan criticized by many for being too costly, for cutting Medicare for the elderly, and for what some see as pushing the U.S. into government-run healthcare.
I think there is going to be a real rallying among Democrats 'to do this one for Teddy.' This was his life work, said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, on health care reform.
At the same time there is nobody in the caucus who would have been better at solving our internal disagreements.
John Rother of AARP, an influential group representing older Americans, said: It probably will result in the Democrats being rededicated, but who knows what the impact will be on the public and Republicans.
The drive to name an interim senator faces criticism from state Republicans, who note that Democrats in 2004 changed the law to head off a chance for then-Governor Mitt Romney to name a Republican to succeed Kerry, who was running for president.
FAMILY GATHERS IN BOSTON
At the seaside family compound in Hyannis Port, the senator's wife Victoria, grandchildren and Kennedy cousins including Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver watched as a military honor guard wheeled out the flag-draped casket and placed it in a black hearse.
Crowds lined the route of a motorcade carrying 85 family members as it looped through Boston on its way to the John F. Kennedy Library, where the body now lies in repose.
Members of the Kennedy family greeted some of the thousands of people waiting in line outside the library to pay their respects. The whole family is touched by this demonstration, said Robert Kennedy, son of Bobby Kennedy.
Many were in tears as they passed the casket. I just hope the healthcare legislation passes soon because that will be the Senator's living legacy, said Toby Cohen Kaminkow, who helped work on Kennedy campaigns, as she blinked back tears.
Attorney Maria Krokidas, 60, recalled being an intern in Kennedy's office as a college student in 1969. He's the guy who has always been there for every client and individual, no matter how small, she said.
Obama will give a eulogy at the funeral at a basilica in Boston on Saturday. Three of the four living ex-U.S. presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- were expected to attend, but a spokesman for George H.W. Bush, 85, said he would not be going. Because of his age it was a little tough for him to travel, although he had spoken by telephone with Kennedy's widow, spokesman Jim Appleby said.
Kennedy will be buried later that day at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington near his brothers President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy.