Nightly News   |  August 20, 2009

Kennedy letter sets off rumors, speculation

Aug. 20: Fifteen months into his battle with brain cancer, Sen. Edward Kennedy made a significant political gesture Thursday by starting a public conversation about the future of the Senate seat he has held almost 47 years. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

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ANN CURRY, anchor: Senator Edward Kennedy has been battling cancer for more than a year now, but there was news today that made it clear that he has not stopped looking ahead. Kennedy has been senator since 1962 , and now he wants to do something about how his successor will be chosen . The story tonight from NBC 's Kelly O'Donnell in our Washington bureau. Hey, Kelly.

KELLY O'DONNELL reporting: Good evening, Ann. It's 15 months now into his battle with brain cancer , and Senator Edward Kennedy made a significant political move. He sent the message that it is OK to begin a public conversation about the future of the Senate seat he's held almost 47 years. Senator Kennedy , the longtime sailor, still heads out to sea. And Kennedy the longtime public servant has begun to chart a new course . In this letter to the Massachusetts governor and top legislators of both parties, Kennedy urged a change in state law, saying, "As I look ahead, I am convinced that enabling the governor to fill a Senator vacancy through an interim appointment, followed by a special election would best serve the people of our commonwealth." Right now, the law says a vacant seat would remain empty for about five months until a new election. The Massachusetts governor lost the power to fill a Senate vacancy during the presidential race in 2004 when state legislators feared that if Democrat John Kerry had won, Republican Governor Mitt Romney would have named the successor. Today Massachusetts Republicans don't want another change.

Mr. RICHARD TISEI (Republican, Massachusetts State Senator): The law should be the law. The rules should be the rules. And everybody should play by it.

O'DONNELL: Kennedy advisers say the senator's request is motivated by his passion to see health care reform passed. And in a razor-close vote, one vacant seat could make the difference.

Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (Political Analyst): What Kennedy has done with this letter is to make it feasible, indeed necessary, for other people to talk about a succession plan that they would have been too embarrassed to do if he hadn't raised it himself.

O'DONNELL: And, Ann , today aides stress that the timing of Kennedy 's letter is not a sign that his health has suddenly deteriorated. The senator never even mentioned his cancer in the sometimes emotional letter. And aides also tell me that Kennedy 's wife, Vicky , has no interest in being considered for

his seat. Ann: All right. Kelly O'Donnell tonight . Kelly , thanks.