From his sickbed, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has secretly been orchestrating meetings with lobbyists and lawmakers from both parties to craft legislation that would greet the new president with a plan to provide affordable medical coverage to all Americans, a measure he has called “the cause of my life.”
Mr. Kennedy has been sidelined for months with a dangerous form of brain cancer. But despite his disheartening medical prognosis - or maybe because of it - aides and activists say, the Massachusetts Democrat’s decades-long quest for health care reform may now be closer to success than ever.
“There is a serious process moving forward and that augurs well,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit health care advocacy group. “There really is a sea change that should not be underestimated in terms of attitude.”
Among those who are receptive to a bipartisan plan and who have participated in the initial talks is Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee, which Mr. Kennedy leads.
The meetings “are a testament to how people feel about him,” Enzi spokesman Michael Mahaffey said. “Senator Enzi is looking forward to working with Senator Kennedy on this issue.”
Mr. Kennedy’s goal, his aides say, is to introduce a universal health care bill as soon as the new Congress convenes next year and to push quickly for its passage - a much-accelerated timetable compared with the last time that a health care overhaul was on the agenda, at the start of the Clinton administration.
“Senator Kennedy has spent the last several weeks laying the groundwork for reform so that we can be ready to go in 2009,” said his spokesman Anthony Coley. “This is and has been the cause of Senator Kennedy’s life.”
He also hopes the bill’s fortunes will be helped by the extensive private consultations between his staff and major players in the health care system. His aides have met with representatives of business groups, labor unions, consumer organizations, insurers, physicians, drug companies and hospitals.
President Clinton’s health care initiative faltered 15 years ago largely because he was unable to gain the support of many of these key factions after constructing a plan that kept many Congress members in the dark for months.
Mr. Kennedy is also moving with the knowledge of the presidential candidate who’s now leading in the polls, Sen. Barack Obama, and appears determined not to repeat the Clinton-era mistakes.
While Mr. Kennedy is shooting for universal coverage, the two men running for president - John McCain and Mr. Obama - have their own plans that many analysts say fall short of that goal. An Obama Senate aide sat in on many of the early Kennedy meetings; no McCain aide did.
The wide-ranging talks have taken place behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and have been monitored by Mr. Kennedy through daily telephone updates from his staff, said his aides and several participants.
The discussions, which started in June, included 14 roundtable meetings in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. These were attended not only by Kennedy aides but also by staffers, both Republicans and Democrats, from the Senate committees with jurisdiction over health care. Those include the Budget Committee, the Finance Committee and the committee that Mr. Kennedy leads, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Also attending was the entire panoply of interest groups with stakes in the cost and availability of health coverage. These included the AFL-CIO, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Retail Federation, the Federation of American Hospitals, the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Families USA, AARP and the Consumers Union.
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.’ ”