Kennedy's Lasting Influence

Washington Matters

Kennedy's Lasting Influence

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will be absent for the final negotiations, debates, town halls and at least some of the congressional votes on the health care reform legislation in Congress this year. In his own way, though, he remains central. Although his illness prevents him from participating as actively as he'd like, he remains a large force who can still make a difference.

Whatever your personal politics, it's proper to acknowledge the outsize influence of Sen. Kennedy, who is coming to terms honorably with mortality and with the brain cancer that has beset him.

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Of all the Kennedys who influenced the last half century, Sen. Kennedy has the largest volume of accomplishment, impact and influence. He is the liberal lion for supporters and the anathema of government-knows-best critics. The difference in opinion won't change. He also has a catalogue of controversy that won't be lifted. This will always be the case with the Kennedys. They were magnets for accomplishment and controversy, courting one and having to confront the other.

Kennedy's letter this month requesting that the Massachusetts legislature change its state law and replace him in the Senate if necessary for the health-care debate this fall is another example of his continuing influence. One or two votes may make the difference. Kennedy realizes this. And there was political strategy behind the letter, given the Democratic governor in Massachusetts and the power to appoint if their law were changed to allow it. It's far from certain the legislature will, and if it doesn't, Democrats can only blame themselves. They passed legislation when Democratic Sen. John Kerry was running for president with the sole purpose of preventing a Republican governor from naming a Republican if Kerry won. Now the move may come back to haunt them.


The Democrats are already missing Kennedy, who has been with them in the Senate since 1962. Never a quiet back bencher, his stature, political heft and deal-making mastery is the stuff of Senate legend. A Daniel Webster in modern times. Perhaps matched by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. The list becomes very short after that.

His best friend in the Senate, conservative Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, is the polar opposite of Kennedy on a universe of national issues, yet has still been his trusted friend for decades. That friendship should be an example for Congress in this most divisive climate, so charged with reckless rhetoric and thoughtlessly argumentative town-hall shout-downs. 

Some form of health care legislation is still likely to pass this year. That is the independent and nonpartisan forecast at Kiplinger. It may be split into two or three bills, not a single landmark bill, and none will have the scope or breadth that Kennedy sought.

It seems increasingly clear, for instance, that there won't be a public provider insurance option to force competition in health provider services. That's looking unrealistic, and it will serve as an example of Kennedy not always getting his way. But odds are some health care reforms will pass, in part due to Kennedy's final desire in public service to commit change for the better of those less fortunate. It won't be all he wanted, but it will be what he'll take.


Supporters and critics of Kennedy will probably agree on that. Something will pass, and it will be the product of a lot of work and negotiation in Kennedy's absence.  

I imagine Sen. Hatch may even attend a Rose Garden signing ceremony, especially if his long-time friend, Sen. Kennedy, is unable to attend.