Despite the hopes of health care reform partisans, there was little sign on Thursday that the death of liberal champion Sen. Edward M. Kennedy would break the congressional logjam and produce quick agreement on the troubled bill.
Conservative opponents of President Obama’s health care proposal said the death of Mr. Kennedy will not greatly alter the debate over the Democratic proposals before Congress. And, despite the respect Mr. Kennedy earned over nearly a half-century in the Senate, there were no signs of a shift among skeptical Democrats on an issue Mr. Kennedy called the “cause of my life.”
Mr. Kennedy, a longtime supporter of universal health care coverage, died late Tuesday of brain cancer at the age of 77, sparking a national outpouring of well wishes from both sides of the aisle. Accompanied by his family, his casket made a slow drive through the streets of Boston Thursday, concluding with a public viewing at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Some of Mr. Kennedy’s longtime allies, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, predicted his death could inject Democrats with a necessary dose of adrenaline to unify and pass a bill. Some have even proposed naming the bill - or the controversial public insurance option at the heart of the bill - after the senior senator from Massachusetts.
But Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a moderate Louisiana Democrat, speaking to a local chamber of commerce in Monroe, La., said the day after Mr. Kennedy’s death that she remained deeply resistant to the public insurance option, which many liberal Democrats insist must be a part of the final bill.
There were “very few, if any” circumstances under which she could support a public option, Mrs. Landrieu said, according to the local Monroe News Star.
“I’d like to cover everyone - that would be the moral thing to do - but it would be immoral to bankrupt the country while doing so,” she said.
Mr. Kennedy’s passing also did not diminish the infighting among wings of the Democratic Party over the fate of health care reform.
Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat and an outspoken liberal who heads the House Ways and Means subcommittee overseeing health issues, labeled fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats “brain-dead” for seeking to water down the health care reform and opposing the taxpayer-funded public plan.
“They’re just looking to raise money from insurance companies and promote a right-wing agenda that is not really very useful in this whole process,” Mr. Stark said in a teleconference with reporters Thursday hosted by the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future.
Both liberal and conservative analysts predicted that Mr. Kennedy’s death, despite the emotional outpouring, would not have a dramatic impact on the political calculus on Capitol Hill.
“The benefit is, I think there’s going to be a ‘Win one for Teddy’ rally among Democrats, so I think that’s a real positive,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the Third Way, a liberal think tank.
But Mr. Kessler noted that given the “internal squabble” among Democrats over the public plan, “there really needs to be a very senior, trusted Democrat to forge a compromise and force everyone to get in line, and Kennedy was the guy to do it. Somebody else is going to have to step out into the breach and it’s not entirely clear who it will be.”
Republican pollster Bill McInturff, speaking at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, said, “It is hard for me to believe that … despite the current and justified emotion, the average Blue Dog Democrat in Kentucky or Idaho or other states is going to want to make a vote about his or her future based on the legacy” of Mr. Kennedy.
Conservative opponents, while acknowledging the emotional power of Mr. Kennedy’s passing, also predicted no shift in the dynamic of the underlying debate over the long term.
“We don’t see the senator’s passing as fundamentally changing the debate at all,” said Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a free-market advocacy group that has encouraged nationwide protests against the Democratic plans. “This is not about any individual. … This is an issue that’s about all Americans.”
At the same time, even critics of Mr. Kennedy’s liberal ideas on health care praised his contributions over a 47-year tenure in the Senate. Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, one of the most vocal groups opposing health care reform, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce even temporarily suspended its pointed advertising campaigns out of respect for the senator.
“While people, I think, clearly respect Sen. Kennedy’s interest in health care, the thing that is still going to drive this discussion is going to be if you look at the town-hall meetings, if you look at all the polling. Americans have zero interest in government-run health care,” said Rick Scott, chairman of the group.
Proponents of increased government involvement in health care may view Mr. Kennedy’s death as a “rallying cry,” Mr. Scott said, but efforts such as naming the health care bill after him would not change the tough situation in which many moderate Democrats find themselves.
“You can respect and admire Senator Kennedy all you want, but [moderate Democrats] were elected to do a job and represent their constituents, and their constituents are saying, ‘I don’t want the government to take over my health care,’ ” he said.
The Third Way’s Mr. Kessler said he doubts Mr. Kennedy’s death will have an impact on most of the protesters who have shown up at congressional town-hall meetings in August across the country, many of whom have expressed fears over aspects of the bill and what critics charge is a “government takeover” of health care.
“I just don’t think there’s anything that’s going to change the behavior of people that are ardently opposed to this,” he said.