Kennedy secretly crafts health care plan

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Mr. Kennedy’s staff has started to meet regularly with a small group of people representing each facet of industry as well as consumers. Kennedy aides said they have not drafted legislation but probably will do so soon.

The conversations are extraordinary for several reasons. First, they have been bipartisan - a rarity in the increasingly polarized capital these days.

The talks also have managed to put in the same room interests that rarely meet - let alone agree with one another. No one is under the illusion that finding a compromise will be easy. Indeed, it remains unclear that a long-elusive consensus can be found. Participants agree, however, that Mr. Kennedy’s active role - particularly during his convalescence - have increased the likelihood of a breakthrough.

“He sets aside several hours each day. He’s calling senators. He’s working tirelessly,” Mr. Pollack said. “He’s making things happen.”

“Kennedy is really seizing the moment,” said Adrienne Hahn of Consumers Union. “He’s a real bridge-builder. He can bring strange bedfellows together.”

Mr. Kennedy’s close relationship with Mr. Obama could prove a boon to those prospects as well.

Kennedy aides say that although they were not working with the Obama campaign on their plan, they also are not considering proposals to which a President Obama would object.

“Were Obama to win, [Mr. Kennedy] will have significant influence on an Obama administration?” Mr. Pollack predicted.

The senator from Massachusetts was an early backer of Mr. Obama’s presidential run, and his speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, which focused on health care reform, was one of the event’s highlights.

“I pledge to you that I will be there next January on the floor of the United States Senate,” Mr. Kennedy told the cheering crowd in Denver. “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 a privilege.”

But Mr. Kennedy will not be the only lawmaker to offer a health care package next year. Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, also might introduce a proposal, though a Baucus aide said the Montana Democrat plans to work closely with Mr. Kennedy.

The 76-year-old senator received a diagnosis in May of a malignant brain tumor and, after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, has been recuperating at his family’s compound in Hyannis Port. Insiders say he devotes several hours a day to his health care project.

“Here’s a guy who has made a serious effort on health reform several times in the past and failed,” said John Rother, a top executive at AARP, the senior citizens lobby. “There will be a very strong impulse in the Congress to do things for him, especially things he really cares about, and health care would be at the top of that list.”

“There is this real feeling,” Mr. Rother added: ” ‘Let’s do it for Ted.’ ”

About the Author

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations. His firm represents a variety of corporations.

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