Massachusetts - Democrats scrambled on Thursday to find a way to quickly fill the seat of Senator Edward Kennedy, and give them a crucial vote in the drive to win overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, a top domestic priority shared by President Barack Obama and Kennedy.
Apart from losing the issue's chief champion in Congress, Kennedy's death on Tuesday cost his party its essential 60th vote in the Senate, the number that gives Democrats the power to block Republican tactical maneuvers to stop healthcare overhaul.
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.
It's all about the number 60, the number the Democrats will need if they face a Republican filibuster, said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University outside Boston.
Kennedy's absence from Capitol Hill as he battled with brain cancer may have contributed to the country's fractious public debate in August, during which town-hall meeting participants charged that changes could bankrupt the government.
Congress must grapple with these public sentiments when it returns in September to writing 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.
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.
After a private family Mass at the Kennedy home in Hyannis Port on Thursday, the senator's body will be moved by motorcade to Boston for Saturday's planned funeral, where Obama is expected to speak. He is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington near his brothers President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy.
Police blocked off roads leading to the Cape Cod compound where the Kennedys have time and again gathered to endure tragedies that included the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and the death of the late president's son in a plane crash a decade ago.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; writing by Scott Malone in Boston; editing by Vicki Allen and Jackie Frank)