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In Kennedy, Democrats lose a top warrior for healthcare reform

His personal and political assets will be missed as they consider how much to give up in exchange for some GOP support -- and whether they can hold their ranks together as they seek compromise.

August 27, 2009|Janet Hook and James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — As the nation mourned the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on Wednesday, President Obama and members of Congress began to size up the toll that his loss will have on Democratic efforts to redirect the nation's domestic and foreign policies.

Kennedy died Tuesday night after a yearlong battle against brain cancer, leaving Democrats wondering who will fill his shoes as they drive to overhaul the healthcare system -- Kennedy's longtime passion.

Some of them hoped that his death would inspire a deadlocked Congress to produce a bill by the end of the year.

"Maybe Teddy's passing will remind people we're there to do a job," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Kennedy's closest friend in Congress.

The Massachusetts Democrat is to be buried Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery, near the graves of his slain brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy. After a motorcade to Boston today, his body will lie in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library tonight and during the day Friday. A funeral Mass is planned Saturday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica -- the "Mission Church" -- in Boston; President Obama is expected to deliver a eulogy. The basilica is where Kennedy prayed daily while his daughter, Kara, successfully battled her own cancer.

The burial at Arlington, near the eternal flame that memorializes President Kennedy, will be in a private ceremony.

Obama, vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, read a statement Wednesday mourning Kennedy's passing and pointing to his standing as both a forceful advocate of liberalism and as one of the senators most skilled at building bipartisan coalitions and friendships.

"He could passionately battle others and do so peerlessly on the Senate floor for the causes that he held dear, and yet still maintain warm friendships across party lines," said Obama, whose presidential campaign got an incalculable boost in January 2008, when Kennedy endorsed him over his chief Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Flags flew at half-staff throughout the capital as tributes poured in from across the political spectrum. Former President George W. Bush, who worked with Kennedy on immigration and education, said that "in a life filled with trials, Ted Kennedy never gave in to self-pity or despair."

Nancy Reagan, President Reagan's widow, called Kennedy "a dear friend" and an ally on stem cell research. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that "the liberal lion's mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream shall never die."

The Senate did without Kennedy for months while he received cancer treatments and lived out his final days at his family's Cape Cod compound. But his absence will be acutely felt in the coming months as Democrats consider how much to give up in exchange for some GOP support -- and whether they can hold their own ranks together if they compromise.

Under Massachusetts law, his Senate replacement will be chosen by a special election no sooner than Jan. 19. Unless the state Legislature changes the law, as Kennedy requested days before his death, Massachusetts will be represented by only one senator, Democrat John F. Kerry, for about five months.

All of this underscores a cold reality about the limits of Democratic power in the Senate. On paper, the party, with the help of two independents, has been sitting atop a majority of 60 votes -- the magic number needed to break a filibuster and control the balky institution. Now they have only 59, at least until Kennedy's successor is chosen.

And as a practical matter, their majority is even narrower. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 91, has also been ill and absent from the Senate. And other conservative Democrats are not supporting their party leaders on key issues such as a government-run health insurance option.

Also complicated is another of Obama's legislative priorities: winning Senate passage of a major bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions before world leaders meet in December to negotiate a new treaty to curb global warming.

Kennedy's death is the latest in a series of events that have dealt setbacks to Obama's standing and his healthcare initiative. Lawmakers' summer town meetings have been marked by protests of his healthcare agenda and other expansions of government power. Recent polls show a decline in Obama's public support. He has angered liberals by signaling a willingness to drop a pillar of liberal orthodoxy -- the public option for health insurance. Opposition to healthcare reform is hardening in the Senate as the handful of Republicans who had sought a compromise are now equivocating in the face of hostile constituents.

Indeed, when the committee that Kennedy chaired voted on its version of the healthcare bill -- in Kennedy's absence, but with his heavy input from afar -- it barely passed on a strict party-line vote.

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