Vicki Kennedy Emerges in Health Care Debate

Posted December 24, 2009 at 12:14pm

Vicki Kennedy may have turned down the opportunity to succeed her late husband, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), in the Senate, but she seems intent on carrying out his legacy, recently emerging as an influential player in the chamber’s historic health care debate.A teary-eyed Vicki Kennedy witnessed Thursday morning’s 60-39 vote in favor of a health care reform bill from the Senate gallery, and shortly afterward she received a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama.”This is for my friend, Ted Kennedy,— Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said on the floor Thursday, as he cast his “aye— vote.Senators say Kennedy serves as a constant reminder of her husband’s lifelong goal of achieving universal health care, which he called “the cause of my life.— In the months since her husband died, Vicki Kennedy has increased her outreach to Kennedy’s one-time colleagues, made several recent appearances in the halls of the Capitol and become increasingly vocal about the need to enact health care reform.“I think she made a difference in the latter years of Senator Kennedy’s life that were very critical, and I don’t blame her at all for feeling success in Democrats passing legislation to achieve universal health care,— said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a close ally of Sen. Kennedy. “These are issues that were very important to her husband.—Many Democrats had hoped Vicki Kennedy would want to succeed her late husband in the Senate after he died of brain cancer on Aug. 25. But she made immediately clear she wasn’t interested, and instead Gov. Deval Patrick (D) tapped former Democratic National Committee Chairman and longtime Kennedy friend Paul Kirk to the temporary appointment, which expires on Jan. 19 when a special election is held.While Vicki Kennedy eschewed an official role, she has warmed to a more public one, particularly as the Senate inched closer to passing its health care overhaul in recent weeks. The Senate’s Thursday vote in favor of its $871 billion package doesn’t ensure enactment but it does bring the issue that much closer to completion. Along the way, Democrats regularly spoke about what health care reform means to Kennedy’s legacy.Vicki Kennedy spoke to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) almost daily while he filled in for her husband during the markup of health care legislation in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She’s continued those conversations, and in recent weeks she reached out to other lawmakers as well.Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Vicki Kennedy called to congratulate him after he was tapped to succeed Kennedy as chairman of the HELP panel in September. Harkin was surprised to run into her weeks later at an elementary school in Southeast Washington, where he regularly reads to children and where Sen. Kennedy was every child’s favorite storyteller.“It was wonderful to see her,— Harkin said.Vicki Kennedy was a lawyer before marrying Kennedy, and she remained relatively private over the course of their 17-year marriage. But she was thrust into the spotlight after his death, and in the months since, she has become an increasingly public figure. Obama named her to the board of the Kennedy Center earlier this month, and on the day before the Senate considered its first procedural motion to move the health care reform bill through the chamber, she penned an editorial in the Washington Post declaring the historic vote “the moment Ted would not want to lose.—After a crucial 1 a.m. procedural vote on the health care bill on Monday, Vicki Kennedy could be seen just off of the Senate floor, embracing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Dodd and Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).Visibly emotional, Kennedy exchanged words of congratulations with Democratic Senators about the just-completed test vote’s implications for the passage of the overhaul. And, according to Dodd, Kennedy indicated that her late husband would approve.“He’s smiling; this is a big step,— said Dodd, the Senator’s close friend.Vicki Kennedy is likely to remain involved as health care legislation moves through the conference process, but her role beyond her husband’s lifelong cause remains unclear.“She remains a force and his partner even though he’s no longer with us, and she’s committing to getting this done,— Kirk said. “She certainly could’ve been the next Senator, but she always felt there was just one Senator Kennedy.—