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Democrats Hope Kennedy’s Death Changes Health Care Momentum

As tributes to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) poured in Wednesday from Members on both sides of the aisle, the immediate impact of the veteran lawmaker’s death became abundantly clear: more partisan bickering over health care.Despite his strongly liberal politics, Kennedy was a consummate deal-maker with a long record of brokering compromise with conservative Republicans on major legislation.Both Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday attempted to lay claim to that legacy of bipartisanship, with each side accusing the other of betraying the spirit of Kennedy and fueling the partisan divide over health care reform that has only intensified since Congress adjourned for the August recess earlier this month. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who defeated Kennedy’s nephew Mark Shriver in a 2002 primary, said he hoped the Kennedy’s death would prompt a change of heart among Republicans on health care reform.“Hopefully at this moment of reflection, some people will reconsider the positions they’ve taken, because it’s pretty clear that there are some in the Republican leadership who have made it clear that they’re going to use this as a political issue and not as an opportunity to try to reform health care in the United States,” he said during a news conference in the Capitol.A senior Republican Senate aide countered that a health care compromise would have been more likely had Kennedy been healthy and fully involved in the overhaul effort. Kennedy was absent from the Senate for much of the last year as he battled brain cancer.“The current legislative path is at an impenetrable standstill with the American people losing faith in its intent and purpose,” this aide said. “We will all really miss his leadership as a voice of reason on the Democrat side who was willing to work with Republicans to provide an accomplishment.”In the House, the Democratic leadership was unable to bring a bill to a floor vote in July because of resistance from fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats. In the Senate, health care reform legislation got bogged down in the Finance Committee, where a bipartisan group of six Senators — three Democrats and three Republicans — has been trying to reach an accord since June. That group has given itself a Sept. 15 deadline to reach a deal.Democratic leaders, riled the past two months by intraparty feuds over the direction of health care legislation, were hoping Wednesday that Kennedy’s death would bring wayward Democrats back into the fold and encourage Republicans to soften their near-unanimous opposition. Kennedy, long a champion of health care reform, was the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.Prior to Kennedy’s death, Senate Democratic leaders were downplaying their filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority, citing the inability of Massachusetts’ senior Senator and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — who has also been chronically ill and absent — to be counted on for votes. Kennedy’s death leaves Senate Democrats with 59 votes, counting Byrd. Massachusetts law calls for a special election to be held in January to replace Kennedy, but Bay State Democratic leaders on Wednesday were discussing the possibility of changing the law to allow for Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to fill the vacancy by appointment.

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