Kennedy’s Death Unlikely to Redirect Health Care Debate

Posted August 26, 2009 at 11:26am

In the context of President Barack Obama’s effort to overhaul health care, the passing of legendary Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) after a lengthy battle with brain cancer is almost anticlimactic.

Kennedy’s absence from the health care debate was evident as early as April, when the partisan lines were first drawn.

Despite his strong liberal politics, Kennedy over the years exhibited a penchant for deal-making. In the early 2000s, he compromised with former President George W. Bush on major education reform, and in the late 1990s struck a deal with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), then in the majority, on the first State Children’s Health Insurance Program providing health coverage to poor children.

But this year, as health care legislation took shape in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that Kennedy chaired, it was increasingly clear that Democrats and Republicans were not heading toward any sort of agreement.

The HELP Committee passed a bill in mid-July on a party-line vote.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan talks in the Senate Finance Committee remain bogged down over key policy differences — and Senate Democratic leaders are weighing their options. Among them is using a procedural tool called reconciliation that would allow them to advance a bill with a simple majority, rather than 60 votes.

Capitol Hill observers on both sides of the aisle suggested Wednesday that Kennedy’s death won’t have much of an effect on the health care debate as it stands today. But some indicated that had Kennedy been healthy and fully involved in the overhaul effort earlier this year, things may have been different.

“The one undeniable truth about Ted Kennedy’s major legislative accomplishments was that, in the end, they were bipartisan. He bridged ideological divides that were seemingly impossible to find middle ground,— a senior Republican Senate aide said Wednesday. “If ever there was an issue in need of that remarkable skill, it is health care reform.—

“The current legislative path is at an impenetrable standstill with the American people losing faith in its intent and purpose,— this aide continued. “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.—

As far back as January, Democrats were anticipating Kennedy’s death and hoping it would provide some extra political juice to push health care reform across the finish line.

Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), the No. 2 Democrat on HELP who took over the management of the committee’s health care bill after Kennedy’s illness intensified, told Roll Call in a Jan. 13 interview that the Massachusetts Democrat’s medical situation created an additional “sense of urgency.—

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), another key player on the HELP Committee, was even more blunt.

“If there’s one person identified with health care in Congress, it’s Ted Kennedy,— Harkin said in the same article. “Let’s be frank about it, because of his condition, we want to get it done, and we want to get it done with him in the chair.—

On Wednesday, some Democrats were again invoking Kennedy’s name to rally support for health care reform, which Kennedy deemed “the cause of my life.—

“In his honor and 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 for his commitment to insuring the health of every American,— Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said in a prepared statement.

Prior to Kennedy’s death, Democratic leaders were downplaying their filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority, most often citing the inability of Massachusetts’ senior Senator — and Byrd, who has also been chronically ill and absent — to be counted on for votes.

With Kennedy having died Tuesday night, Senate Democrats will be stuck with 59 votes for about five months, as, according to Massachusetts law, a special election to replace him is not likely to be held until late January.

Absent a bipartisan breakthrough on health care or a decision by Obama to pursue a more narrow bill, the prospects for moving ahead with reconciliation could increase. Although the reconciliation tool could hamstring the scope of health care reform, it would allow Democratic leaders to pass legislation with 51 votes.

Meanwhile, the line of succession on the HELP Committee remains vague.

Dodd, the next in line, is unlikely to want to give up the gavel of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Similarly, Harkin, the No. 3 Democrat on HELP, is likely to want to hold onto the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry chairmanship, given the panel’s importance to his home state.

That could leave Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a fiery liberal in her fourth term.

Like Harkin, Mikulski was given a key role in shaping the HELP Committee’s reform legislation. She helped Dodd as he managed the panel in place of Kennedy while simultaneously running the Banking Committee.

As a part of her lengthy statement mourning Kennedy’s death, Mikulski credited the late Senator for her joining HELP in the first place.

“When I arrived [in the Senate in 1987], Sen. Kennedy was on the Democratic Steering Committee. He wanted me to join him on the health committee and served as my precinct captain for committee assignments,— Mikulski said. “He knew how to operationalize good intentions. He understood the legislative framework. We called it doing good by doing well.—

“So by January 1987, I was on the HELP Committee,— she continued, “but also on Appropriations Committee because Sen. Kennedy knew you can take the best ideas to create real opportunities in an authorizing bill, but it doesn’t mean much unless there is money in the federal checkbook.—