By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009
As Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's death suddenly quieted the national debate over health-care reform, some Democratic lawmakers suggested Wednesday that the passing of such a prominent advocate for universal health coverage may represent an opportunity to hit the reset button on that issue.
But whether that would improve the odds of passing a health-care bill was much less clear. Leading Republican senators hinted that no Democrat seemed ready to assume Kennedy's traditional role both in crafting a political compromise and in selling it to the Democratic base.
When the veteran lawmaker died Tuesday night of brain cancer, the cause he long championed stood at a dangerous crossroads. As President Obama's top domestic goal, a health-care reform bill had advanced further in Congress than any such effort in decades, only to spark a partisan brawl upon lawmakers' return home for the August recess. With every acrimonious town hall meeting, the fate of a final deal seemed to grow less certain.
With Congress's August recess nearing its end, the window is closing for opponents of a health-care overhaul to further undercut its public support before lawmakers resume working on the bill. Meanwhile, Kennedy's memorial services and burial are likely to draw more public attention to his political career, and to the issues he held dear -- including universal health insurance, which he once called "the cause of my life."
"My hope is that this will maybe cause people to take a breath, step back, and start talking with each other again, in more civil tones about what needs to be done, because that's what Teddy would do," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who has served as temporary chairman of the Senate health committee in Kennedy's absence.
"I hope that members of Congress will take a moment to reflect on Ted Kennedy's approach to issues, where he was passionate about his beliefs but willing to work with others to get things done, for the greater good," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "We need to renew that spirit in the current debate, not just about health care."
Three GOP senators suggested in their remembrances of Kennedy that Democrats will need more than respectful conversation to gain bipartisan support for a health-care bill. Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) lamented Kennedy's absence in the negotiations.
"I think we may have made progress on this health-care issue if he had been there," McCain told CNN. "He had this unique capability to sit people down at a table together -- and I've been there on numerous occasions -- and really negotiate, which means concessions. And so, he not only will be missed, but he has been missed."
"I believe if he had been active the last few months, we would have some sort of consensus agreement," said Gregg, a passionate advocate of Medicare reform who has sat out Senate deliberations on perhaps the most extensive revisions ever to that program.
"We would have worked it out. We would have worked it out on a bipartisan basis," Hatch, who co-authored numerous health-care bills with Kennedy over the years, said on CNN. "I'll be happy to work in a bipartisan basis any day, any time . . . but it's got to be on something that's good and not just some partisan hack job."
Other Republicans played down prospects that opponents of reform would reconsider their position. "Certainly people honor Sen. Ted Kennedy for all of his work," Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) told CNBC. "But at the end of the day, this is a democracy, and I think the voice of the people have been heard quite loudly in the month of August."
The senior Senate Democrat, Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), called for passage of health-care reform in Kennedy's honor. "As a tribute to his commitment to his ideals, let us stop the shouting and name-calling and have a civilized debate on health-care reform, which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name," he said.
Byrd's call drew jeers from conservative commentators. Michelle Malkin called the idea "crass," and Sean Hannity said that Kennedy's death "is not added reason to push for passage" and that "Obama-care deserves to be judged on its merits."
But liberal activist groups were quick to join Byrd in his call. MoveOn.org urged its supporters "to re-commit ourselves to achieving the thing that mattered most" to Kennedy, and Democrats.com called for lawmakers to pass "real health reform -- including a strong public option."
Kennedy's credibility with such groups tended to overcome their resistance to compromise as capitulation, and his skill as an expert dealmaker was such that when he worked with President George W. Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education bill, he persuaded stalwart Democrats to vote with him on the controversial legislation.
"He brought to the table the absolute confidence of the liberal end of the spectrum, and so when he reached an agreement, there wasn't any sort of second-guessing of him," Gregg said.
Persuading the Democratic base to bend on provisions otherwise held as fundamental may be the single most important challenge for party leaders in the weeks ahead.
Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.