WASHINGTON — Securing universal health care coverage for Americans was a decades-long quest that eluded Sen. Edward Kennedy. In the wake of his death, however, several key Democrats on Wednesday saw a chance to break what's become this year's stalemate by invoking his legacy and last wishes.
"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 statement.
"The passion of his life was health care reform," House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said. "Above all else he would want us to redouble our efforts to achieve it."
However, it was also likely that without Kennedy, a deal would be even harder to get.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, who worked closely with Kennedy on education legislation in 2001, said last month that "the thing I got to learn about Ted Kennedy is that he's a legislator. . . . He wants to sit down and work out the details."
Boehner said there was "no question" Kennedy's absence had affected the health care debate in Congress. "He would have been a big help, I think, to the president."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who worked with Kennedy to expand children's health coverage and who's broken with his own party on stem-cell research issues, similarly recalled recently how he thought Kennedy would've handled the health care impasse.
"The first thing he would have done would have been to call me and say, 'Let's work this out, and we would work it out so that the best of both worlds would work," Hatch said.
The biggest impact of Kennedy's death, however, could be on his fellow Democrats who are divided over whether to create a public option to compete with private insurance, expand regional health insurance cooperatives, resist both because of concerns about spending and the impact on the private sector or hold out for a single-payer system that Obama himself doesn't support.
"The message will be we're doing it for the American people, which is why he wanted to get this done," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "In my view, he would not want this to be about him, it never was. It was about getting it done for the American people."
There was no universal agreement that a healthy Kennedy could've brought about a health-care compromise where the gulf between rival positions is enormous.
"Ted Kennedy over the years was never able to dominate that difficult issue," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Schier recalled that Kennedy had failed in his push for President Bill Clinton's health care overhaul in 1993 and 1994.
President Barack Obama, in the immediate hours after Kennedy's death, chose not to speak publicly about the political next steps. White House aides declined to discuss any of the strategizing now going on within the president's inner circle or the Democratic Party.
Congressional Democrats said it wasn't yet clear whether there'd be a coordinated effort to invoke Kennedy or what, if any, role the Kennedy family would play in calling for unity and action on health care. However, a senior House aide, who wasn't authorized to discuss strategy and spoke anonymously, predicted that Kennedy would be a big part of efforts to win approval of some kind of health care legislation.
"You'll hear his name invoked quite a bit," the aide said.
It's no secret that health care had been a priority for Kennedy during his nearly five decades in the Senate. One of Kennedy's last public appearances was at a March town hall meeting Obama held on the topic, and Obama had consulted with Kennedy as recently as June on legislation.
Kennedy was open about his regrets that he defeated rather than found a way to work with President Richard Nixon's efforts to expand health coverage in the early 1970s.
At the time, Kennedy accused Nixon of partnering with insurance companies more than with doctors, patching a broken system rather than establishing a better one, and perpetuating a two-tiered system of the care, one for the poor and the other for the rich.
This time around, however, Kennedy's staff has engaged a working group that's included representatives from consumer groups, business, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and insurance industry officials.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a close Kennedy friend who took over the leadership responsibilities of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee when Kennedy was too ill to fulfill his chairman's duties, said he wanted others to heed a key Kennedy legislative lesson: Remember that you were elected to get things done, not simply offer your point of view.
Kennedy, Dodd recalled, had a history of working out compromises with Republicans — with Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., on legislation to make health insurance more portable, and with President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind education plan.
One of those lessons, Dodd said, was don't give up.
"One lesson in health care was 'stay,' he would say," Dodd recalled. "Do it. Don't stop. Be polite; let everyone have their say, but stay with it."
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
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