Health Reform Loses Its Most Vocal Advocate

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
With the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Congress last night lost one of its most passionate, vocal proponents of health care reform, at a time when every vote for the Democrats' top legislative priority will prove crucial.

Kennedy set the bar for the health care debate this year by sponsoring a boldly liberal piece of legislation as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. His bill included a government-sponsored health insurance plan, or "public option"; an expansion of Medicaid; generous subsidies for lower and middle income Americans; a mandate for all Americans to obtain health insurance; and a mandate for employers to contribute to the nation's health care system.

The senator gave his endorsement for President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign on the promise that comprehensive health care reform would be at the top of the new president's agenda.

Kennedy brought to the discussion a personal commitment to health care that he called the "cause of my life." Furthermore, he brought a formidable record of moving forward momentous pieces of health care legislation that have surely changed the lives of countless Americans, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Ryan White AIDS Act and the State-Children's Health Insurance Program.

"Ted was so immensely knowledgeable," Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said on the CBS "Early Show." "Ted wanted to really drill down and say, 'Okay. How are we going to get costs down? How are we going to make sure everybody has access to coverage?' Those are the sorts of things he was a master at resolving."

Kennedy's absence from the health care debate has been made all the more conspicuous through the partisan rancor that has grown over the past weeks and months. While he was an unabashed liberal, few commanded the respect or won the friendship of both liberals and conservatives as Ted Kennedy did.

"Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate because he had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "It's huge that he's absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the health care reform might be in a very different place today."

In a survey conducted by the Hill newspaper, the Senate voted Kennedy the most bipartisan Democrat in the chamber.

"I'd love to co-sponsor every piece of legislation with Ted Kennedy," Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told the newspaper. "When Ted says he's going to do something, he's committed to it."

Yet while few could have orchestrated the bipartisan cooperation Kennedy may have been able to, his seat in the Senate was also crucial for Democratic plans to bypass Republican dissent.

With just 59 votes in the Senate now, Democrats cannot rely strictly on their own caucus to block a filibuster against health care legislation. It is even unclear whether Democrats have enough votes to pass health care legislation through the reconciliation process -- a voting procedure for budget-related items that only requires a simple majority.

Kennedy's spot in the Senate will be replaced, of course, but unless the Massachusetts legislature votes to change current state law, the seat will remain open until a special election likely to take place in January. Kennedy sent a letter (PDF) to Patrick and state legislatures last week urging them to allow the governor to appoint an interim senator until a special election could be held.

"So will Democrats use Kennedy's death as a rallying cry to unite and pass health care reform?" writes CBS News' Chief Political Consultant Marc Ambinder. "It is hard to tell whether his death -- inevitable as it has seemed -- is priced in to the politics of the debate so far. But Orrin Hatch, and other Republicans who worked with Kennedy, might be in a more expansive mood to compromise. Kennedy would probably encourage such speculation and not find it unseemly -- so important to him was the goal of getting something done, this year, under this president."

Read more on the life and death of Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy:

Obituary: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy Dies at 77
Reaction from Around the Country and the World
Excerpts of Famous Kennedy Speeches
U.S. Newspaper Obituaries
Kennedy's Career Forced in Public's Glare
No Immediate Action on Succession
Photo Gallery: Ted Kennedy
Katie Couric Reports On Kennedy's Life
CBS News Special Tonight at 8 p.m. ET: "The Last Brother" Special Report: Ted Kennedy