With their dreams of health care reform imperiled by a party split over the public option, Democrats are keenly feeling the absence of Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion felled by a brain tumor that has kept him away from the Capitol for much of the last 15 months.
Insiders say that Kennedy, and maybe Kennedy alone, has the stature to help President Barack Obama bridge the gap between liberals who insist on a government-run option and moderates who remain fearful of the cost — and even bring along some Republican support as well.
Jim Kessler, vice president for public policy at the Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said that Kennedy hasn’t been “that keenly missed in terms of what’s going on in the debate“ — up until now.
“This is the first time that aspects of health care reform have the potential to divide the progressive base,” Kessler said. “And that’s where he could unify them.”
Jennifer Palmieri, a senior vice president for communications at the liberal Center for American Progress, agreed that Kennedy “would have appeal for the Republicans and then have the impact for perhaps coalescing support on the left.”
“We’ve worked together so many times,” Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch — a close Kennedy friend — said as the Senate prepared for recess earlier this month. “Now, we’ve fought each other most of the time, but when we get together, people tend to get out of the way. And he wanted to work with me on health care.”
Hatch recently walked out of bipartisan talks in the Finance Committee over health-care legislation and has sharply criticized a Democratic health bill that emerged from Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Hatch has called the HELP proposal a “staff-driven” bill, and he doubts Kennedy would have advanced such a measure.
But Hatch said he hasn’t talked with his friend about health care for about two months.
Senate Democratic insiders also say there’s been little contact with the Massachusetts Democrat recently. “Nobody seems to have any details,” said a Democratic insider close to the Senate leadership. “It just seems like [Kennedy] is not coming back.”
While there’s little news from the Kennedy compound in Massachusetts, Kennedy’s absence from recent public events has fueled fears about his health.
Kennedy did not return to Washington on Aug. 6 for the vote — symbolic though it would have been — on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Last week, Kennedy was not present for the ceremony, hosted by Obama, where he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given out by the U.S. government.
Several days later, Kennedy missed the public funeral service for his sister, Eunice Shriver, who passed away at age 88. Kennedy’s office said he did take part in the private, family-only portion of Shriver’s funeral services.
The Boston Herald reported on Monday that Obama may visit Kennedy when the president takes his family on vacation in Cape Cod next week. The Herald also declared that Kennedy, 77, appeared “frail and failing” in his only public appearance after Shriver’s death.
A Kennedy source dismissed the report as a “rumor in the Herald gossip column.” But Kennedy’s office declined to address specific questions about his health or future plans.
Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor last May. He was back at the Capitol in January for Obama’s inauguration and presided over three confirmation hearings. While his staff says he has conducted some private meetings, he has been seen on the Hill only rarely this year, missing nearly every one of the 270 floor votes.
But throughout his illness, Kennedy’s office has largely operated as if the senator were still in daily attendance on Capitol Hill.
For instance, Kennedy has continued to be listed as the sponsor or co-sponsor of bills and amendments during his absence, although the amount of legislation he has sponsored these last eight months is a fraction of his usual output.
His office has also issued frequent press releases with the senator commenting on big votes or issues important to Massachusetts — although the pace of those has slowed in recent days.
Throughout his career, Kennedy has been known for reaching compromises within his own party and with Republicans, as he did during the Bush years over the “No Child Left Behind Act” and immigration-reform legislation. Without his presence, some Republicans previously seen as key to advancing a bipartisan health deal are keeping their distance from Democrats.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University, said Kennedy could help push health care reform over the hurdles it faces by supplying the public passion on the issue that he said Obama has failed to deliver so far.
Zelizer pointed to Kennedy’s intense criticism of former President Jimmy Carter leading up to the 1980 election, most notably over Carter’s decision to abandon a push for universal health care.
Now, Zelizer said, Kennedy could be a critical conduit on Capitol Hill, both to Senate Republicans and the Democratic liberal base, and Kennedy could use his political weight to support Obama in the public debates over the issue.
“I think that’s been very harmful,” Zelizer said of Kennedy’s absence.
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), one of Kennedy’s closest friends in the Senate, has taken over the HELP Committee in Kennedy’s absence.
But Dodd, who is also chairman of the Banking Committee, has recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Dodd’s doctor say the cancer was detected an early stage, and after having surgery last week, Dodd was released from the hospital Saturday.
Dodd is expected to return to work in September.