For decades, Republican political campaigns joyfully lobbed the term "Ted Kennedy Democrat" in the heat of battle when they needed to brand an opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal
But now with the Senate seemingly deadlocked over health care reform and angry constituents shouting down members of both parties at town-hall meetings across the country, several senior Republican senators concede that the Senate would have a more popular, bipartisan approach to health care reform and would be closer to an overall compromise if Kennedy, the Senate's "Liberal Lion," was in Washington and able to shepherd the process himself.
"He is the consummate legislator," said Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions with Kennedy. "He is interested in legislating and making progress and reaching agreements. He knows how to close a deal."
In the past, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wanted to strike a bipartisan deal on anything from defense to immigration reform, he invariably turned to Kennedy for help: "We just sat down together and worked out a proposal. He didn't start it; I didn't start it. We just sat down and said OK, here's what we want to achieve -- what do we have to do?"
The list of Kennedy's past partners in high-profile accomplishments reads like a Republican convention roll call. Before he became vice president, Indiana's junior senator, Dan Quayle, worked with Massachusetts' senior senator on job training. Kennedy created the Health Insurance and Portability Act (also called Kennedy-Kassebaum) with Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.). He funded AIDS research and children's health insurance in concert with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and teamed up with President George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind. And after working with Kennedy on immigration reform, Bush's Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, described Kennedy to the Boston Globe
In 2003, House Minority Leader John Boehner worked with Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind, the bill Boehner called his "proudest legislative accomplishment." Describing Kennedy recently, the Ohio Republican said, "He's a legislator. He wants to legislate and sit down and work out the details," adding that Kennedy knows more about health care than anybody else in the Senate.
That's not an accident. After a career focused on extending health care coverage to children, the elderly and disabled, Kennedy now calls reforming the entire American health care system "the cause of my life
According to Kennedy's Senate office and several others interviewed, the senator has continued to be involved in the health care reform process. He had regular contact, often daily contact, with staff and fellow senators during the mark-up of the health care bill in the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pension Committee, which Kennedy chairs. He has spoken with the White House about health care reform on numerous occasions and was able to monitor his committee's proceedings from Massachusetts on his computer. He has not, however, been able to be in Washington for the one-on-one negotiations with Republicans that are a pivotal element for nearly all major Senate legislation, where relationships once trumped party and politics, and still do for the likes of Kennedy.
Would the Senate actually be closer to an agreement on health care reform if he were able to be in Washington to work his colleagues? "Yes, we probably would be," said Gregg.
Several Republicans from the HELP committee said that unlike past bills, which Kennedy drafted with their early input, the health care reform bill was written entirely by Democrats, who only opened the bill to their amendments, which were greeted mostly with party-line no votes, after
it was introduced. "The first thing Senator Kennedy would have done is exactly what he did," said Hatch. "A couple of months before, we got together and he said, 'Let's do this.' Then the next thing I know is his staff are writing a White House bill, directed by the White House, that is one-sided and partisan."
Whether the Democrats left the Republicans out of the process, deliberately or not, seems to be a matter of debate. Gregg described a process following Kennedy's diagnosis, but before the bill was introduced, in which Kennedy was undergoing cancer treatments and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) had not yet taken over the unofficial leadership of the committee. "There was that clear vacuum there, without having Senator Kennedy there to engage Senate Republicans, especially Senator Enzi."
Mike Enzi is the top Republican on Kennedy's HELP committee and is one of the three Republicans still negotiating with Sen. Max Baucus on the Finance Committee's section of the bill. Enzi also described a HELP bill-writing process in which Democratic staff asserted more authority than Republican senators and left his ideas out of the bill until after it was introduced. "I don't think Sen. Kennedy would have treated me this way," he said.
Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA, a national health-care consumer advocacy group and an active participant in the negotiations, countered that an effort was made early in the process to try to involve senators on both sides of the aisle on health care reform, but that "virtually none of the Republicans availed themselves of that process."
Pollack called the initial HELP bill "the product of wide consultation," and added, "I think these senators are grabbing at straws to find what might be an excuse they think is reasonable for their opposition to health reform." He also believes the final product of the committee, which passed on a party-line vote, likely would not have differed much in its substance, which hewed closely to key Democratic goals.
Perhaps that's true -- we'll never really know -- but what is clear is that if health care reform stalls in September, no other person currently involved in the health care debate can match Kennedy in terms of stature and trust from senators and interest groups from across the political spectrum.
"People were willing to trust his word," said McCain. "He always kept his word, and that is far less common around here than a lot of people think."
Gregg added that because Kennedy has the full faith of liberal constituencies, he has more bargaining power than any other Democrat in Washington. "He is able to create compromises that otherwise could not be created, because people have confidence in him as an individual who will not undermine the liberal agenda."
Families USA's Pollack doesn't dispute the GOP fear that Kennedy's shoes might be hard to fill. He asserted that the time when Kennedy's negotiating skills would be most needed still lies ahead, during the conference negotiations between the House and the Senate. "When a deal needs to be cut, he would play that role," Pollack said, adding that President Obama would most likely take that role in Kennedy's absence.
Although Democrats reached the crucial, 60-vote threshold in July with the addition of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), they will almost surely need Republican support to pass health care reform this year. Not only have some moderate Democrats balked at elements of the House-passed bill, but Democrats could fall short of a filibuster-proof majority, even with a unified caucus.
If Kennedy cannot vote on the final bill, Democrats will have just 59 votes on health care reform. His absence will require Democrats to seek the bipartisan compromise he might already have forged with Republicans had he been able to be in Washington to fight for the cause of his life, instead of in Massachusetts, fighting for life itself.