The Great Dealer

Democrats Fear That His Loss Will Hamper Policy Overhauls

Edward M. Kennedy

1932 - 2009

August 27, 2009|By Janet Hook and Jim Oliphant | Janet Hook and Jim Oliphant,Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON - -As the nation mourned the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on Wednesday, President Barack Obama and members of Congress began to size up what the loss of the legendary deal maker and the liberals' most powerful voice will mean for Democrats as they seek to redirect the nation's domestic and foreign policies.

Shell-shocked but not surprised by the end of Kennedy's yearlong battle with brain cancer, many Democrats worried that no one could fill his shoes as Congress moves toward a crucial juncture in the drive to overhaul health care - his lifelong passion.

After a summer in which the battle over health care broke along predictable party lines, Democrats had hoped to tap into Kennedy's time-tested ability to forge legislative compromises.

Now, some Democrats seem to be grasping at straws, hoping that his death would inspire a deadlocked Congress.

"Maybe Teddy's passing will remind people we're there to do a job," said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.

Kennedy will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, near the graves of his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The public memorial begins today at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where his body will lie in repose through Friday. A funeral Mass is planned Saturday in Boston.

The burial at Arlington, near the eternal flame that memorializes President Kennedy, will be a private ceremony.

The Senate has been doing without Kennedy for months, because he has been receiving taxing cancer treatments and living out his final days at his family compound on Cape Cod. But his absence will be even more acutely felt in the coming months as Democrats mull how much they will have to give up in exchange for at least some GOP support on health care - and whether they can hold their own ranks together as they compromise..

It is exactly that stage of legislating at which Kennedy excelled, thanks to personal and political assets not shared by Obama and other key Senate Democrats like Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Under Massachusetts law, his replacement in the Senate will be chosen by a special election no sooner than January 19, 2010. Unless the state legislature changes the law, as Kennedy had requested just before his death, Massachusetts might be represented by only one senator, Democrat John F. Kerry, for up to five months.

Kennedy's death is the latest in a series of events that have dealt setbacks to Obama's standing and his health care initiative. Lawmakers summer's town meetings have been disrupted by widely publicized protests of his health care agenda and other expansions of government power. Recent polls show a drop in Obama's public support. He has angered liberals by signaling a willingness to drop a pillar of liberal orthodoxy - providing a government-run health insurance option. Partisan opposition to health care reform in the Senate has hardened as the handful of Republicans who had joined in seeking compromise are now equivocating in the face of hostile constituents.

Against that backdrop, it is not clear that even Kennedy in his prime could have transformed the polarized environment that has dampened if not dashed Obama's hope for a comprehensive health care overhaul.

However, because Kennedy has been legislating for so many years - over an array of issues far broader than most contemporary senators - he had developed an eye for the unlikely compromise. And he was schooled by his family tradition and by the ethos of the less-partisan Senate of yore in the art of establishing ties with Republicans.

"He had an amazing ability to find the glimmer of common ground that might be elusive to a lot of us because we don't have the deep relationships with people on the other side, or we don't know everything that makes them tick," said California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Kennedy also had the good political fortune to have a loyal and forgiving constituency in Massachusetts, which has re-elected him by wide margins - even after the 1969 Chappaquiddick car accident that left a young woman dead and raised questions about Kennedy's judgment that would have ended another senator's career. And as an icon of the Democratic left, Kennedy would have been better positioned than others to persuade liberals to accept half a loaf - such as a bill without a government-run health insurance option - if that was all that could be achieved.

"I don't think Kennedy could have brought the package home as currently constructed," said John Feehery, former senior aide to the House Republican leadership. " I am also not sure if he would have not over-reached as badly as Congressional Democrats have done to get to the hopeless situation they are now in. However, only Kennedy would have been able to pick up the pieces after this thing utterly collapses and salvage the things that everybody agrees with."

Kennedy's death also underscores a cold reality about the limits of Democratic power in the Senate. On paper, Democrats have been sitting atop a commanding majority of 60 votes - the magic number needed to break a filibuster and control the balky institution. Now they have only 59, at least until Kennedy's successor is chosen.

And as a practical matter, Democrats majority has been even narrower for months. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 91, has also been ill and absent from the Senate.

Maryland officials recall Senator Kennedy as a friend and an inspiration. PG 8

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