Kennedy’s Death May Sway Centrist Democrats on Health Care
Reframing the health care reform debate as a tribute to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) could inject new momentum into the stalled quest for a bipartisan compromise, but Democrats warned that it will not necessarily be the magic bullet that eliminates all major policy disputes — either with Republicans or among themselves.“There probably will be a Kennedy quotient, and it certainly puts a little extra energy into trying to get something done this year,— one Senate Democratic aide said.However, the aide cautioned that centrist Democrats who have been deeply skeptical of creating a public insurance option are unlikely to suddenly embrace that particular part of the Democratic leadership’s plan.“There will be an attitude of win one for Teddy,’— the aide said. “But I don’t think it’ll change the centrists’ viewpoints at all. They’ll separate their great admiration for Kennedy from what is palatable in their states.—As the August recess winds down and the party takes stock of the feedback it has received at constituent forums at home, moderate Democrats seem to have only found more reasons to be suspicious of pushing a health care bill particularly one that includes a public option too quickly.For example, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) told a crowd in Kearney, Neb., this week that he thinks the process still needs to slow down. “It appeared for some period of time, and it still does to others, that we’re moving too quickly, and I think we were,” Nelson said, according to the Kearney Hub.Because of the continuing divide within the party and with Republicans, Senate Democratic aides said liberals should not expect centrists to roll over on health care for the sake of Kennedy’s legacy. Some aides said it would be wise for the party’s left wing to look at Kennedy’s long record of bipartisanship as they look to honor him with a win on health care this year.“If liberals want to follow Kennedy’s legacy, then we should look for the middle ground on this bill, if it’s possible, and cut a deal that gets us most of what we want,— another Senate Democratic aide said.Similarly, some fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House are hoping Kennedy’s history of working with key conservative Republicans will help soften the high-pitched rhetoric that continues to surround the health care debate.An aide to a Blue Dog said one positive result could be that Members come back to Washington with motivation to say, “We need to tone it down— on the rhetoric.Republicans have said they remain skeptical of the Democratic Party’s plans for reform, despite Kennedy’s death. Asked whether he might return to the bargaining table as a result of his good friend’s passing, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was noncommittal on CNN on Wednesday.“On the right kind of bipartisan legislation, of course,— said Hatch, who had been one of four Republican Senators negotiating on a Finance Committee bill before he pulled himself out of the talks. “There are some things I just couldn’t be for. … I’ll be happy to work in a bipartisan basis any day, any time, any week. And but it’s got to be on something that’s, that’s good, and not just some partisan hack job.—But the left flank of the party clearly feels more resolved to realize the dream of providing health care for all, particularly through a public insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. A third Senate Democratic aide said there is a hope that the inspiration to fulfill Kennedy’s dream of health care reform might persuade the six remaining Finance negotiators three Democrats and three Republicans out of the foxholes they appear to have dug for themselves. “Some of the problems now are actually caused by stubbornness, rather than by the policy proscriptions,— this aide said. “Sen. Kennedy’s death could bring people together and help move things forward.— In their first statements after Kennedy’s death late Tuesday night, Democratic leaders and liberal interest groups pressed for passage of health care reform to help Kennedy realize his top legislative goal; Kennedy just this summer called health care reform “the cause of my life.—Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) suggestion that the Senate bill be renamed after Kennedy has elicited charges from conservative Republicans that Democrats are trying to politicize Kennedy’s death.In her statement after Kennedy died, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated that she now views the health care debate as a tribute to the late Senator.“Ted Kennedy’s dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration,— Pelosi said.The liberal National Coalition on Health Care released a statement Wednesday, saying, “In this time of remembrance, we rededicate ourselves to seeing what Ted Kennedy called the cause of his life the enactment of sustainable reform to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care is realized.— David M. Drucker contributed to this report.