At the risk of extending a ghoulish conversation, I think Noam might be overestimating the humanity of Republican Senators when he concludes that it was a tactical mistake for Ted Kennedy to try to guarantee that his seat isn’t vacant for any period of time should he die in office:
If Kennedy were to pass away in the next few months, the Senate math on any health care vote would almost certainly get easier, not harder. For one thing, it would single-handedly make the magic number 51 votes, not 60, since it would be suicidal for the GOP to filibuster the culmination of the last Kennedy brother's lifelong crusade. Beyond that, I suspect the coverage of Kennedy's death would silence healthcare reform critics and boost proponents in a way that netted at least a couple of wavering moderates--so clearing the 51-vote threshold wouldn't be a problem. Heck, you might even see Utah Republican (and longtime Kennedy friend) Orrin Hatch back in the reformist camp.
But I don’t see anything in Republican Senators’ current behavior that suggests that they’d respond in such a fashion. After all, Kennedy’s current situation is plenty sympathy-inducing; and it’s not as if he’s been reluctant to link his personal health battle to his legislative battles for health reform. And yet, how have his colleagues across the aisle responded? By lamenting Kennedy’s absence but, at the same time, using it as a convenient excuse for their opposition to health reform: If only Teddy were around, they argue, he would surely be able to hammer out some sort of compromise the GOP could agree to. My guess is that, should Kennedy die in office, Republican Senators will continue with this more in sorrow than in anger opposition to health reform and use it to justify a filibuster. In other words, I think Kennedy knows his GOP colleagues well enough to know that Democrats are going to need 60 votes.