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Chairman Kennedy Carries the Ball

Kennedy Pushes Key Parts of Democratic Agenda at HELP Panel

As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seeks to finish up the Democrats’ initial, and much ballyhooed, legislative priorities over the next few weeks, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is plowing full-speed ahead with the broader Democratic playbook on health and education issues.

“We’re almost prepared to move beyond the [2006 campaign] agenda and deal with stuff moving through committee,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley noted of the first handful of bills that Democratic leaders promised to pass as their first order of business in the 110th Congress.

And Manley, a former Kennedy press aide, indicated that Kennedy’s proposals would be some of the most popular among Democrats, because, “There’s been a pent-up demand in [the HELP] committee for action on some of these key things for the country. Sen. Reid looks forward to working with Sen. Kennedy to get these proposals to the floor as quickly as possible.”

Indeed, Kennedy’s agenda includes much of what Democrats have been pushing for on health care and education in recent years — including such perennial favorites as lower college costs, improved early childhood education, mental health parity and Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco. [IMGCAP(1)]

“That’s just this week,” said Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner of Kennedy’s topics du jour. “This is the pace we’re going to be at. There’s a lot more that we want to do.”

But this time, Democrats actually control the majority in Congress, so passage of many HELP measures through both chambers appears a real possibility this year.

Today, for example, the committee will vote on a long-standing Democratic priority — a bill to require health insurers who cover mental illnesses to pay for psychiatric treatments at the same rates they would for physical ailments. On Monday, Kennedy and HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) announced that they had reached a long-sought compromise on the legislation.

The panel also will act on a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the early childhood “Head Start” program today.

In fact, Kennedy is touting a different item each day this week. On Monday, in addition to the introduction of the mental health parity and the Head Start bills, Kennedy unveiled a measure to force livestock farmers to end the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals, unless they can prove the drugs pose no danger to public health.

On Tuesday, Kennedy introduced a portion of his broader higher education agenda — a measure to provide incentives for colleges to use the Education Department’s Direct Loan program. Kennedy and co-sponsor Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said the bill would help end “subsidies” to private student loan providers and lower the cost of college for students.

Though that proposal exists as a separate bill, Kennedy plans to take up a larger student loan debt measure in committee in March, said Wagoner. The measure also would reduce student loan interest rates — a priority for the new Democratic majority in Congress — as well as increase Pell Grants and institute income-contingent student loan repayments, among other things.

“He believes in the comprehensive approach,” Wagoner said. She added that action on the higher education reauthorization measure likely would follow committee consideration of the student loan bill.

Kennedy said he was not sure when the student loan issue might make it to the Senate floor — giving a wide-ranging timeline from April to early June. But he said the popularity of higher education measures would ensure that he would not have a difficult time finding floor time.

Still, Kennedy tacitly acknowledged that the student loan bill would come under fire from some Republicans and banks, which he said get their second most profitable business — after credit cards — from student loans.

“There is no reason we should be seeing these extraordinary profits at the expense of students,” Kennedy said at a press event Tuesday. He added that the White House is unlikely to support many of the provisions in the measure.

Nonetheless, the HELP panel will hold the first of many hearings on higher education this Friday.

Also on Tuesday, Kennedy presided over a hearing on requiring employers to provide workers with paid sick leave. Kennedy is expected to formally introduce that bill in the next few weeks.

While many of Kennedy’s proposals enjoy the support of Enzi and other Republicans, the paid sick leave issue exposed a rift between the normally congenial pair.

“The pool of available labor dollars is not infinite, and when we mandate their expenditure for a specific purpose, we always run the risk of unintended consequence,” Enzi said in a statement. “Imagine the irony for an employee who is granted sick leave under this bill, but whose employer decides to eliminate or reduce health plan benefits.”

Kennedy also is likely to get significant push-back from Enzi and other Republicans on his bill giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products, which he will introduce Thursday and hold a hearing on Feb. 27.

One former Kennedy aide said the Massachusetts Democrat would primarily bring up measures that enjoy Enzi’s support.

“All signals coming out of both offices is that they really want to work collaboratively,” said the former aide. “People who want to stop these bills are going to have to get it done on the Senate floor.”

The aide added that Kennedy and Enzi currently are working on a bill to allow small businesses to band together to buy lower cost health insurance.

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