Kennedy in top form for health care reform push

May 28, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As the only one of five committee chairmen charged with health care reform who is making visible progress, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was being quizzed by reporters last week about President Clinton's appearance on Capitol Hill to rally support for the effort.

The Massachusetts Democrat had already begun lumbering off when he got a final query about whether he was the one who had prompted Mr. Clinton's last-minute decision to meet with Republican critics as well as with his own party leaders.

Flattered by the suggestion he had a hand in this intrigue, Mr. Kennedy suddenly whirled around with an impish twinkle in his ** eye and quipped: "No, I wish I had. Can we start this over again?"

Somehow, in the flash of that magnificent Kennedy smile, the years just disappeared.

These are glorious days for America's aging political prince. After three tumultuous decades of high drama and low moments, Mr. Kennedy is playing a pivotal role in what could be the crowning achievement of his career: enactment of national health care legislation.

"This is the fulfillment of something he's been working on for at least 25 years," said Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, the senator's nephew and another Massachusetts Democrat. "He's going to move mountains to get it passed."

At a time when other congressional leaders are weakened or distracted, Mr. Kennedy has his Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee steadily moving forward. He is seen as certain to be the first full committee chairman in either the House or Senate to win approval for any version of health care reform legislation.

And despite his reputation as the poster boy for liberal Democratic causes, Mr. Kennedy is picking up Republican votes for nearly every section of his bill. He has a reliable majority of Democrats, but he urges his committee members to shape bipartisan compromises every time they hit a snag.

To some degree, the Republicans are just trying to make the best of what they consider a bad bill because it is too generous in its benefits and too burdensome on employers. On the final vote for committee approval for the Kennedy proposal, the only Republican likely to support it is James M. Jeffords of Vermont, a co-sponsor of the original Clinton proposal.

Mr. Kennedy's bill is also certain to run into opposition from conservative and moderate Democrats when it reaches the Senate floor.

But Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the committee, said she believes some of the bipartisan compromises the panel is reaching on side issues -- such as a fail-safe process for controlling benefit costs -- could find their way into law.

At a minimum, Mr. Kennedy's committee offers hope for passing health care reform this year when progress elsewhere is hard to find.

"This committee is moving along at a better pace than anyone else on health care reform," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who serves on the panel, observed with satisfaction during a voting session this week. "And we're doing it with a better tone."

Mr. Kennedy's delight in his progress on the health care legislation was overshadowed by the death last week of his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As patriarch of the Kennedy clan, it fell to him to comfort his huge family through yet another tragedy.

There are also signs of trouble at home in Massachusetts, where surveys suggest that Mr. Kennedy may be vulnerable to a re-election challenge for the first time since he arrived in Washington 32 years ago. A majority of those questioned in a recent Boston Globe poll indicated they thought it might be time for the 62-year-old Mr. Kennedy to retire.

Reminders during the Onassis funeral of the rakishly handsome youth who was first elected to the Senate when his brother was president have been a mixed blessing for the "Teddy" of today. The ruddy-faced veteran of what Mr. Kennedy acknowledges as too many long nights on the town has seen his poll ratings sink at a time when he's getting around the state more than he has in years.

"To see him is not to love him," observed Ronald Kaufman, a

Republican political operative from Massachusetts who served in the Bush White House. "He doesn't look good."

By all accounts, Mr. Kennedy's remarriage two years ago to Victoria Reggie has brought stability to his personal life. The two joined in a Christmas party skit last year that poked fun at his licentious bachelor behavior.

"He's changed a great deal," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican and close friend of Mr. Kennedy. "I've been there throughout the process, and I have to say his marriage to Vicki has been a wonderful thing for him."

Mr. Kennedy turned to Mr. Hatch for counsel and help after the 1991 incident during which his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was charged with rape, Mr. Hatch said. The incident reflected badly on Mr. Kennedy because he had awakened the younger man to go out drinking with him earlier that evening.

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