As the nation mourns the death of one of its all-time political giants, Senate Democrats are preparing for life without Sen. Edward M. Kennedy - and the crucial liberal vote he would have delivered to help push through President Obama's agenda.
"Ted Kennedy's dream was the one for which the Founding Fathers fought and his brothers sought to realize," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. "The liberal lion's mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream will never die."
With Tuesday's death of the Massachusetts icon, Senate Democrats no longer will have a 60-vote majority in the 100-member chamber, the "magic number" needed to overcome Republican filibusters intended to block Democratic legislation.
His seat could be vacant for months, forcing Senate Democratic leaders to woo at least one moderate Republican if they hope to advance key Democratic proposals such as health care reform and limits on greenhouse gas emissions - issues with little support in the minority party.
Under Massachusetts law, Mr. Kennedy's seat could remain vacant until January 2010. The rules require Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to set an election date between 145 and 160 days after a Senate seat becomes vacant. The vacancy represents the state's first open Senate seat since 1984.
The ailing senator urged state lawmakers before he died to return to the capital and pass legislation that would allow the governor to appoint a successor to finish his current term.
In a letter to state leaders last week, Mr. Kennedy wrote that it was "vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election."
Mr. Patrick said Wednesday that he would sign off on the change, but it was not clear whether Mr. Kennedy's proposal had enough support among legislators to pass.
The seat could remain in the family, as political analysts have suggested sons Edward Kennedy Jr. and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, along with nephew Joseph P. Kennedy II, as possible successors.
To what extent Mr. Kennedy's absence could derail Democratic initiatives is highly uncertain.
"I have no idea, because everything depends on what 'it' is," said Bill Galston, a political expert with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think thank. "There is no single unified health care bill in the Senate right now; there's no single unified cap-and-trade bill in the Senate right now. And the appeal of a piece of legislation, and setting aside partisan polarization - which is very high - is shaped by its content."
The declining health of 91-year-old Democratic stalwart Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia also means the party's once "filibuster-proof" majority soon could slip to 58. Such a scenario would put even more pressure on Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin to keep his fellow Democrats in line on key votes.
But Mr. Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton, said despite Mr. Durbin's most diligent efforts as whip to shore up votes, passing legislation is a complex and unpredictable process during even the best of times.
"Senator Kennedy's loss is a huge one in human and in legislative terms," he said. "In arithmetic terms, I really think that's the least of it - it's the wrong way to be looking at this."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat and a close friend of Mr. Kennedy, vowed that his party would forge ahead with his colleague's legacy.
"He fought like a lion this last year to stay alive and to be around," Mr. Dodd said. "His presence over the last year has had great value. His spirit has been there during all of these [legislative] debates. And while he wasn't there to cast votes, believe me, his presence was felt during these discussions, as they will be in the coming days."