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Can Senate pass health bill without Kennedy?

The absence of his dealmaking skills could make negotiations even harder, but some say his death will inspire Democrats to get the job done.

By Staff writer / August 27, 2009

Kennedy's passing has provided all involved in the health debate an opportunity to take a break and tone down rhetoric, which had been becoming more and more heated on both sides. Some are now proposing that his name be attached to the legislative effort.

Susan Walsh/ AP/ File

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Washington

A Senate giant who defined American liberalism for generations now will be absent as a historic cause of the Democratic Party – expansion of healthcare – faces a fateful hour.

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Yet his legacy lives on. Thus the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy appears likely to affect the coming healthcare-reform debate in unpredictable ways. Will his death inspire Democrats to stop intraparty squabbling and unite in his name? Or will the lack of a famous dealmaker trusted by all make intra- and inter-party negotiations even more difficult?

For their part, Democratic leaders are vowing that Senator Kennedy will serve as their inspiration in the hard legislative work they face this fall.

"Ted Kennedy's dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California in a statement.

But Kennedy's unique ability to rally liberals and simultaneously cut deals with Republicans will be sorely missed, some experts say.

"The 'win one for the Gipper' stuff is great for eulogies," says Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The problem is that when you get down to hammering out the nitty-gritty, he won't be there."

At the least, Kennedy's passing has provided all involved in the health debate an opportunity to take a break and tone down rhetoric, which had been becoming more and more heated on both sides.

Some advocacy groups pulled advertising related to health legislation. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisles called for a cease-fire of sorts.

"[L]et 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," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia in a statement.

By proposing to attach Kennedy's name to the legislative effort, proponents may be hoping to brand it, in a marketing sense, by associating it with a personality recognizable to virtually every American.

That might help counter the fact that the sweeping bills in the House and Senate are difficult to summarize to voters, due to their many and far-reaching provisions.

But giving the effort a new name would not change its substance, and many Republicans appear unlikely to soften their opposition to healthcare legislation of any form.

Whatever the tone of the debate, the problem is that Democrats are not listening to GOP concerns, as Kennedy himself would have, said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona in a broadcast interview Wednesday.

"We may have made progress on this healthcare issue if he had been there," Senator McCain told CNN. "He has this unique capability to sit people down at a table together ... and really negotiate, which means concessions."

Kennedy's years of roaring rhetoric in support of national health insurance ("the cause of my life," he said) and other liberal issues made him a hero to the left wing of his party before the end of the Vietnam War.

But in addition, Kennedy's decades in office gave him perspective on what it takes to pass legislation – and an awareness of how imperfect big bills often are, notes Mr. Hess of Brookings.

A liberal leader with such hard-won knowledge, Hess says, might have been useful in coming months, given that if any bill is to emerge from the House and Senate, it probably won't be as sweeping as liberals would like. "Kennedy could have helped them get through this. Nobody questioned his liberalism," he says.

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