Determined to make the most of his remaining time in the Senate, and of the opportunities that will come with Democratic control of the legislative and executive branches, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy will leave the Senate Judiciary Committee to focus on advancing health care reform as the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“As Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I expect to lead a very full agenda in the next Congress, including working with President Obama to guarantee affordable health care, at long last, for every American. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and I intend to make the most of it,” said Kennedy, who added, “I also support Senator (Harry) Reid’s initiative to have senior members of the Democratic Caucus reduce their committee assignments in order to provide opportunities for less senior Democratic senators.”

There is no question that expanding access to health care is the single issue with which Kennedy has been most closely associated during his 46 years in the Senate. And he does have a history for helping younger Democrats attain key committee assignments.

But the fact that Kennedy is sincere does not soften the blow of losing the Judiciary Committee’s steadiest champion of civil rights and civil liberties — and the readiest challenger of conservative judicial nominees, as foes and fans of Robert Bork well recall. It was on the committee that is charged with defending the rule of law and the independence and integrity of the federal courts that the Massachusetts Democrat earned his reputation as the lion of the Senate.

“I do so with great confidence in Chairman (Patrick) Leahy and my current colleagues on the Committee — and in the newly elected Democratic senators who will reap new opportunities from my stepping down,” added Kennedy. “I remain deeply committed to civil rights, equal opportunities and immigration reform, and I will always be involved in those important debates and discussions.”

That last line was offered as reassurance to liberal activists who have come to rely on the Massachusetts senator as their most effective champion on an essential committee. But even with Kennedy’s promise of continued commitment — which no one doubts he will keep so long as he remains on top of his battle with a malignant brain tumor — DC progressive expressed a sense of loss perhaps best summed up by People For the American Way President Kathryn Kolbert:

During his years on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Kennedy proved himself to be one of the Constitution’s staunchest defenders. His passion for justice and his deep commitment to equality under the law have helped to better our nation in countless ways. Although we look forward to working with Chairman Leahy and the other members of the committee, we will miss Senator Kennedy’s presence immeasurably. He is irreplaceable.