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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.

Either way, Democrats familiar with the health care battle in the Senate predicted that Kennedy’s death would have no measurable effect on the direction of the debate.

However, absent a bipartisan breakthrough on health care or a decision by President Barack Obama to pursue a more narrow bill, many believe the prospects for moving ahead with reconciliation are likely to increase. The reconciliation maneuver would allow Democrats to clear a bill with 51 votes rather than the customary 60.

“The political realities are what they are,” a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “But in a deeper sense, his example will hopefully give both sides the needed perspective to soften their rhetoric and pursue a deal, as he did so successfully time and again.”

The line of succession on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee remains vague.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on Wednesday did not rule out relinquishing his chairmanship of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs panel to take the HELP gavel.

Should Dodd remain as Banking chairman, the next in line to take over HELP is the No. 3 Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa). However, Harkin may be reluctant to give up the gavel of Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. If that is the case, the next in line to take over HELP according to seniority is Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

Dodd emphasized in a Wednesday afternoon conference call that he hasn’t given the decision much thought and wouldn’t anytime soon. Dodd, the No. 2 HELP Democrat who managed the committee as Kennedy battled brain cancer, said that right now he is focused on the loss of a “great, great pal.”

“The words sort of leave you at a moment like this,” Dodd said. “To me, it’s the loss of a friend. I just lost my best friend in the Senate. We were great pals for many years.”

“It’s going to be hard to go back to the Senate. It’s going to be hard not to see that phone ring and see that area code come up,” Dodd continued. “I’ve lost a great, great pal — a great friend, the best I’ve had in the Senate. And the country’s lost a great advocate.”

The Connecticut Democrat, who faces a tough re-election battle next year, said he would confer with the Senate Democratic leadership at some point “down the road” in the health care debate.

Dodd said he is too “consumed with grief” and wants to reserve judgment on how to handle his committee assignments.

“I haven’t given that a second’s worth of thought,” he said “I’m going to stay on this committee. I intend to be deeply involved in the health care issue.”

Dodd said he expects Kennedy’s staff on the HELP Committee will continue to play a key role in the crafting of a final Senate health care bill. Kennedy’s staff is considered by Senators on both sides of the aisle to be among the most experienced on the issue on the Hill.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.

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