Wellstone's Legacy Nears Fruition

"President Obama" is the title of the portrait, if not the senator. Painter Chaz Guest pictures it in Oval Office. (Courtesy Of Chaz Guest)
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By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, September 25, 2008

This week, policy and politics combined with something that is sometimes just as important on Capitol Hill: the personal regard some lawmakers have for one another.

Six years after his father died in a plane crash, David Wellstone is on the cusp of seeing passage of an initiative that would be the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's legacy. The House and Senate each passed versions of the Wellstone-Domenici legislation, which would require private insurers to provide the same level of benefits for treatment of mental illness as they do for physical maladies.

It is named after Wellstone (D-Minn.) and retiring Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who forged a bond working on mental health legislation in the mid-1990s because both had family histories of mental illness. When Wellstone died in a plane crash while campaigning in northern Minnesota in October 2002, Domenici broke down sobbing on national TV, vowing to pass the insurance parity legislation in Wellstone's memory.

Less than a year after the crash, David Wellstone took up his father's cause and -- as an admittedly naive lobbyist -- began working to pass the legislation. One of two surviving sons of the senator, he has flown from his California home to Washington every other week for the past 18 months to push for final passage.

"We've gotten this close," he told The Post's Lyndsey Layton this week. "We've got to get it done now. I got involved originally because this was my dad's, a legacy bill for him."

That cause has met with many failures in recent years, including the once-strong opposition of the insurance industry. Despite having majority support in both chambers, it never reached the legislative finish line.

Now, negotiators are trying to hash out the final wrinkle in the process -- how to pay for the bill. House Democrats are urging a fee on hospitals.

Some are confident that this is finally the time for its passage. And not just because it's the right policy prescription.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he remains confident the mental health bill will pass "for all sorts of reasons" -- his way of referring to the emotions senators feel for Wellstone; for Domenici, who is retiring with his own health problems; and for a third senator who is battling cancer while trying to achieve another bipartisan accomplishment. That would be Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"This is Senator Domenici's last thing. Senator Kennedy is very much behind it," Baucus said. "It's going to pass, I'm sure of it."

The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has jurisdiction over the issue, and Chairman Kennedy has championed the cause. Kennedy, who has been battling brain cancer since the spring, had a sister who battled mental health issues. From his home in Hyannis Port, Mass., where he is recuperating, Kennedy has been monitoring final negotiations over the bill, which is sponsored in the House by his son Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who has suffered bouts of depression.

David Wellstone said he has met too many people over the years who are suffering from mental illness and finding financial hardship because of insurance costs.

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