A Bill Fit for a Kennedy

As Senate Democrats proclaimed the 60 votes needed to pass health-care reform, Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer says the late senator would have backed this bill.

Ted Kennedy thought this moment would come, though by this spring he did not expect to see it. In May, he wrote to President Obama that he was “confident… that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the president who at long last signs into law the health-care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society. For me, this cause stretched across decades; it has been disappointed, but never finally defeated. It was the cause of my life. And in the past year, the prospect of victory sustained me—and the work of achieving it summoned my energy and determination.”

“To a great extent, the entire caucus continues to be moved by him and to see this as the culmination, the crowning achievement of his career,” Sen. Kirk, Kennedy’s successor, told The Daily Beast Saturday.

Kennedy influenced Obama’s growing commitment to health care—an issue that was more Hillary Clinton’s in the 2008 primaries. He did it in private, talking the issue up before making his critical endorsement, and again and again on the stump and at the Democratic convention, when he said “this is the cause of my life—new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American—north, south, east, west, young, old—will have decent quality health care as a fundamental right and not as a privilege. We can meet these challenges with Barack Obama. Yes, we can, and finally, yes, we will.” And Obama returned the compliment, citing Kennedy’s leadership when he urged Congress in September to move ahead, and telling Democrats at the White House how Kennedy had inspired him on the issue.

The brain tumor that killed him in August denied the Senate the chance of a more bipartisan measure. He conferred continuously with staff and colleagues by telephone as his committee worked through the bill in the spring. But he was not around this fall when the Senate could have used his legendary ability to make compromises with Republicans and then sell them to disappointed liberals.

He would have been selling this measure. The bill the Senate is about to pass does not have everything he would have liked. He would have liked more coverage and quicker insurance reforms. He wanted the public option and would have been unhappy with the antiabortion provisions. But he would have rallied disappointed liberals behind Harry Reid’s latest effort.

One of Kennedy's most famous speeches on heath-care reform, from December 1978

As his widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wrote in an op-ed for Sunday’s Washington Post, “He predicted that as the Senate got closer to a vote, compromises would be necessary, coalitions would falter and many ardent supporters of reform would want to walk away. He hoped that they wouldn't do so. He knew from experience, he told me, that this kind of opportunity to enact health-care reform wouldn't arise again for a generation.”

In response to Howard Dean’s claim that the bill caved in to the insurance companies, she cited provisions that curbed their practices and concluded “The bill before Congress will finally deliver on the urgent needs of all Americans. It would make their lives better and do so much good for this country. That, in the end, must be the test of reform. That was always the test for Ted Kennedy.”

Senator Chris Dodd, who guided the legislation through Kennedy’s committee last summer, said Saturday: “The man who carried this torch as long and as proudly as anyone is here with us today only in spirit.” He spoke of partial steps, collaborations with Kennedy on family leave, the patients’ bill of rights (which failed on its own under President Bush, but, as Obama noted Saturday, lives again in this bill) and children’s health insurance. “But,” Dodd said, “with every step forward and every painful step back, Ted Kennedy never stopped believing that, in the wealthiest country in history, everyone should be guaranteed access to decent health care. And he never stopped believing that, in the freest country in history, it would someday come to pass.”

It was left for others to do the final heavy lifting. Still, as Democrats bucked each other up in recent contentious caucuses, Sens. Dodd, John Kerry, Dick Durbin and Teddy’s old friend and appointed successor, Paul G. Kirk, reminded their colleagues of Kennedy’s commitment. Saturday’s caucus watched a video that showed him. As Kirk told The Daily Beast Saturday, “to a great extent the entire caucus continues to be moved by him and to see this as the culmination, the crowning achievement of his career.”

On the Senate floor Wednesday, the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s first speech advocating universal health care, Kirk said:

“Ted Kennedy’s voice still echoes in this chamber. His spirit of hope and strength, of determination and perseverance is still felt here…. Let each of us in this Senate be moved by the better angels of our nature and make that future a better one for our generation and generations to come. As Ted Kennedy said 40 years ago, ‘All we need is the will.’”

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The Senate legislation bears a cumbersome name: “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” Ultimately be legislation may be named for Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Or even, if that’s what it takes to secure passage, for Joe Lieberman, or perhaps Ben Nelson and Bart Stupak. But fundamentally it will be the Kennedy health-care law.

Adam Clymer is a former chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.