Kennedy name not enough to move health reform

Democrats plan to invoke Sen. Edward Kennedy’s name repeatedly in their push for a massive overhaul of the healthcare system, but political insiders in both parties say his name alone will fall far short of the contribution he could have made personally.

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Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) wants the reform bill named after Sen. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) declared his death a reason to “rededicate our efforts toward passing legislation to provide robust, quality health insurance coverage for all Americans.”

But Republicans are not about to be shamed into blindly backing a one-sided bill, and some conservatives have already criticized Democrats for trying to politicize the issue through the use of Kennedy’s name.

They counter that Democrats could honor Kennedy best by making concessions — something Kennedy earned a reputation for in his 46 years as a legislator.

“It depends on the bill,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who worked closely with Kennedy to pass one of the biggest bipartisan domestic initiatives of the past 10 years, the 2002 education law known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Gregg, an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership, said that “it would be nice” if Kennedy’s legacy helped advance a compromise and that if legislation bore Kennedy’s name “it’s something that would be appropriate.”

But Gregg said Kennedy’s memory will not attract Republican support unless Democrats make significant concessions to the other side.

Specifically, Republicans want Democrats to abandon their plan to create a broad government-run health insurance program, known as the public option, which conservatives fear would drive most private insurance companies out of business.

Some liberal stakeholders doubt how much of an impact Kennedy’s death will have on the progress of healthcare reform, noting that his long physical absence from the Senate had accustomed lawmakers to working without him.

“I don’t think it dramatically changes the picture in the short term,” said Thea Lee, policy director at the AFL-CIO. “We’d already lost his voice; his voice is what we really needed.”

But other liberal stakeholders said Kennedy’s death clouded the prospects of passing a reform bill that would greatly expand government’s role in healthcare.

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 worked very closely with Kennedy’s staff from day one.”

Kennedy’s death complicates healthcare reform for Democrats in several ways. Under Massachusetts law, his seat will remain vacant for between 145 and 160 days, although Democratic state lawmakers are racing to change that. Nevertheless, Senate Democrats will only control 59 seats in the near future, one short of the number needed to quash a Republican filibuster.

Even while he remained at home in Hyannis Port, Mass., battling cancer, Kennedy played the role of influential adviser to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who filled in for him as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

“His loss is tremendous,” Dodd told reporters on Wednesday.

Dodd said that he had an in-depth conversation with Kennedy about healthcare as recently as two weeks before his death and was amazed at his old friend’s mastery of policy detail from his sickbed.

Dodd said Kennedy guided the committee markup of the only healthcare legislation to advance in the Senate so far.

Another major question is what role Kennedy’s staff will play. They were the main architects of the HELP bill, but without a boss, their seat at the table is by no means assured.

Dodd said he hoped Kennedy’s staff would play a central role but acknowledged that the next chairman would decide. It’s unclear whether Dodd will leave the Banking Committee to take over HELP or let the gavel go to Sen. Harkin or Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

One Democratic lobbyist said Kennedy’s death would further hamper a legislative push that has slowed amid strong partisan sniping.

“Clearly it doesn’t help in any shape or form. I think it takes a lot of steam out of the sails,” said the lobbyist, who requested anonymity to avoid criticism from fellow liberals for striking a pessimistic tone.


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