By Alexander Bolton - 08/26/09 01:15 PM EDT
Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death sent reverberations throughout Washington on Wednesday, shaking up the healthcare debate as well as the Senate’s leadership structure.
Democratic lawmakers and liberal advocates called Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) passing a reason for Congress to rededicate itself to moving a bipartisan healthcare overhaul. But the question arises whether his legacy is big enough to win over skeptical Republicans and carry the contentious legislation over the finish line.
“His loss is tremendous,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who filled in for the ailing Kennedy as chairman of the HELP panel when it marked up a sprawling health bill earlier this summer.
“Maybe Teddy’s passing will remind people once again we’re there to get a job done,” Dodd added.
The death of a senator would cause a ripple, and the passing of a chairman has an even larger impact. But the void left by Kennedy will send tremors throughout the political landscape.
Democrats and Republicans both used him to raise tens of millions of dollars over the years, casting him as a saintly defender of the underdog and a demonic symbol of liberal excess, respectively. He was an effective fundraiser because he was so well known and spurred strong passion.
Kennedy was one of Senate’s most liked and respected members, and his death prompted an outpouring of venerations from both sides of the aisle. The end of his career will alter the balance of power in the Democratic conference and could shake up the leadership of as many as three committees: the HELP, Banking and Agriculture panels.
“The United States Senate will never be the same without Ted Kennedy,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who is at the center of Senate healthcare negotiations. “His presence was enormous. He fought hard, debated intensely and worked tirelessly for what he thought was right.
“Senator Kennedy and I had a different point of view on most every issue, but he was an ally like few others when he was on your side.”
Though Kennedy was mostly absent from the Senate since receiving a diagnosis of brain cancer in May of 2008, he played a pivotal role behind the scenes as strategist, calling Dodd frequently from Hyannis Port, Mass., while undergoing treatments.
Dodd said he spoke with Kennedy about healthcare reform as recently as two weeks ago and was amazed by his mastery of legislative details. He said Kennedy guided him through the HELP panel markup, advising him on how to handle hundreds of Republican amendments.
Kennedy’s staff drafted most of the bill that was approved in July by a party-line vote.
Liberal advocates seized on Kennedy’s death Wednesday to press harder for legislation that includes a major government role in healthcare.
“In this time of remembrance, we rededicate ourselves to seeing what Ted Kennedy called the cause of his life – the enactment of sustainable reform to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care -- is realized,” said Ralph Neas, CEO of the liberal National Coalition on Health Care. “To quote one of his final public speeches, today, for us “the work begins anew.”
Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, said Kennedy’s death would have a “big impact” but insisted it would be positive. “It will refocus the debate on the values that Ted Kennedy represented. That all people ought to have health insurance and that people shouldn’t have to beg to be treated. That healthcare should be universal in the best way and shouldn’t be scaled back.”
But other liberal stakeholders in the debate were less optimistic.
A labor official who works closely with Democratic senators on healthcare reform said: “I think he’s going to be a major loss if you want my honest opinion. We work very closely with Kennedy’s staff from day one.”
A Democratic lobbyist said: “Clearly it doesn’t help in any shape or form. I think it takes some of the steam out the sails.”
Some Republicans say that Kennedy is one of the few Democrats who could have persuaded the more liberal members of the party to accept a compromise, such as setting up membership-run cooperatives instead of a government-run plan to compete in the insurance market.
“No one understood better than Kennedy that politics is the art of compromise,” said the aide. “We haven’t seen many Republicans willing to compromise in recent months.”
Most obviously, Kennedy’s death means that Democrats control only 59 seats in the Senate, one short of the number needed to cut off an expected Republican filibuster of healthcare reform. It may take months to fill the seat through a special election under Massachusetts law.
Some Democratic aides and lobbyists think the loss of Kennedy makes it more likely that Democratic leaders will have to resort to a special procedural maneuver, known as budget reconciliation, to pass the most controversial elements of reform, including a government-run insurance program, with a simple majority.
But Kennedy’s bigger impact would have been persuading Democratic and Republican senators in private phone conversations to support a controversial bill in the end. His colleagues had hoped that Kennedy himself could have showed up on the Senate floor to cast the decisive vote, such as he did on a stimulus bill in February and a Medicare bill last summer.
Now they will never know how Kennedy’s role would have played out, said a Democrat close to the late senator.