Wellstone's Legacy Nears Fruition

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.

"I started seeing the folks he saw, started realizing the problem. And I saw it's the right thing to do," he said.

Put Me In, Coach

The Senate Democrats' star player is back in the game.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) held a big fundraiser at her Embassy Row home Tuesday night to raise money for Senate Democrats, who are hoping to gain four to seven seats on Election Day. The event, hosted by the Women's Senate Network of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was Clinton's first fundraiser for the DSCC since she ended her presidential campaign. And it was a biggie.

The suggested donation to attend the "Checklist for Change" cocktail buffet dinner at the Clinton home, known as Whitehaven, ranged from $1,000 to a whopping $28,500. The DSCC would not reveal how much money was raised at the event, but a source familiar with it said the total was in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Several die-hard supporters of Clinton's presidential campaign showed up at the senator's home wearing buttons that said "Hillary Sent Me." They apparently plan to wear them as they fan out across the country trying to help Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and down-ballot Democratic candidates.

DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told On the Hill, "Hillary has been a key and instrumental part of our successful fundraising since completing the presidential campaign, doing everything we have asked."

Clinton, according to those who attended the fundraiser, gave a rousing and "gracious" speech that focused heavily on attaining a filibuster-proof majority of 60 Democrats in the Senate.

Of Paintings . . .

He hasn't won the election, but Barack Obama already is the subject of a portrait titled "President Obama."

"The painting is on hold and ready for when he walks into the Oval Office," says Chaz Guest, the artist who painted it. Guest said the painting will be on loan to Obama from the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago "until it is official."

Guest decided to paint the portrait because the senator from Illinois was so appreciative of Guest's portrait of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. That portrait, which Guest lent to Obama, has hung in Obama's Senate office for three years.

Obama sent Guest a thank-you note for that painting on Oct. 11, 2005, saying: "One of the people whose shoulders I stand on is Thurgood Marshall. . . . Looking at the painting each day provides me great inspiration and comfort."

The painter, who lives in Los Angeles, says the two first met at a fundraiser during Obama's first run for Senate four years ago. He seems confident his portrait will hang in the Oval Office next year.

Guest said silkscreen prints of the painting may eventually be available.

. . . and Sculptures

Keep your eyes and ears open walking through the Capitol late in the evenings these days. If you're not careful, you might be run over by a 1,000-pound statue roaming the hallways.

In preparation for the planned December opening of the Capitol Visitors Center, officials are moving two dozen of the mostly marble statues that line the Capitol's hallways into the new underground greeting center for tourists. The acting Architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, is overseeing the moves, which are incredibly labor-intensive.

Monday night, for example, more than half a dozen workers gathered in the second-floor hallway just off the Senate floor to lay down wood planks across the Capitol. Using a large hydraulic lift system, they picked up a likeness of John Middleton Clayton-- a 19th-century senator from Delaware -- and slid it across the Capitol, out the doors and into the visitors center.

Eva Malecki, the architect's spokesman, said the decision on which statues go into the visitors center depends on how recently they were added to the Capitol's collection and which ones reflect "the diversity of the collection and the diversity of the country."

For example, Po'pay-- a 17th-century Pueblo freedom fighter in what became New Mexico -- is the most recent addition, in 2005. It was recently hauled from the Capitol's site of highest honor, the Rotunda, where Jefferson, Washington, Eisenhower and Martin Luther King Jr. are on display, to the visitors center.

In the end, there will be more room inside the Capitol, with 76 statues there and 24 in the visitors center. The next addition, a statue of Helen Keller, soon to be sent up from her native Alabama, will go to the visitors center, Malecki said.

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