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Health care foes compete to frame Kennedy's legacy

Liberals and conservatives, at odds over health care, are competing to use the legacy of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to further their goals.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Liberals and conservatives, at odds over health care, are competing to use the legacy of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to further their goals.

The left claims the Senate's liberal champion would have settled for nothing less than universal care and a new government-run insurance option. Republican foes of those ideas say the Democrats should take a lesson from Kennedy's gift for cutting a pragmatic deal and sacrifice some of their priorities in the interest of a bargain the GOP could support.

The White House appears intent on staying out of an unseemly political debate that's unfolding even before Kennedy is laid to rest, saying that President Barack Obama has no intention of refereeing disputes over the Massachusetts Democrat's memory.

"There will be a time when it's appropriate to have discussions on different ramifications, but I don't think anybody thinks that now is it," Bill Burton, a White House spokesman, said this week.

But even Obama's secretary of health and human services got into the act on Friday, telling seniors at a wellness center in a former theater named for Kennedy's family that the driving question on health care should be: "What would Teddy do?"

It's a question that defies a clear or obvious answer, and it may hold little relevance at a time when the health overhaul — and with it a major piece of Obama's own legacy — is teetering. But Kennedy's memory has become a kind of Rorschach test in the debate, with both sides seeing what they want to see in his example.

"There is going to be a battle over his legacy on health care," said Roger Hickey of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. Despite Republican contentions that honoring Kennedy means compromise, he said, "No one wants to pass a half-measure in tribute to Ted Kennedy. ... There will be a stronger push to pass comprehensive health care reform because of (his) passing."

Kennedy's friend, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has suggested naming the health overhaul legislation after Kennedy, and a liberal political action committee, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee PAC, has launched a Web site, http://www.HonorKennedy.com, to press for passage of legislation that reads like a Democratic wish-list and is anathema to GOP lawmakers. The group has gathered 40,000 signatures on a petition to be delivered to Capitol Hill Monday that urges senators to name the measure, which passed the Senate health committee last month, "The Kennedy Bill," and pass it — "and nothing less."

Such calls have drawn loud protests from some on the right, where conservative commentators are accusing Democrats of a crass effort to use Kennedy's death to further their political fortunes.

"They're going to turn this into the biggest political rally you've ever seen. They can't help themselves," said radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Conservatives have also tried to use Kennedy's death after a long illness to score their own points in the health care debate. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Thursday on his radio show that it would be absurd to enact a far-reaching health overhaul in Kennedy's name when he "gave us the most shining example of why this particular bill is so bad."

Huckabee suggested that Democrats "would devalue older people's lives, or encourage them to accept less care to save money" and noted that Kennedy by contrast chose a costly operation and painful follow-up treatments in the face of his own terminal diagnosis. Democrats dispute that the elderly would be denied appropriate terminal care under their proposals.

Among Senate Republicans, some see Kennedy's death as a different kind of rallying cry — one for reviving a spirit of compromise that might prompt Democrats to put aside their favorite — but more politically difficult — ideas to attract GOP support.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, an ideological adversary of Kennedy's who nonetheless had frequently teamed with him to cut deals on tough issues, said the colleague he knew would have at least been willing to consider tempering his party's demands if it meant a broad health care bargain.

"If (Kennedy) was there, even though he would want a single payer system and always wanted it, he would listen. I'll put it that way," Hatch said.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., said the two parties would be much closer to a deal had Kennedy not been ill and absent during most of the year's contentious debate. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said there would probably have been an agreement by now.

Some conservative analysts were even more certain.

"Ted Kennedy would have been willing to jettison the public plan. He would have been willing to jettison more controversial aspects of the health care bill to get it passed," said Brian Darling of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Immediately after Kennedy died, Obama aides began worrying privately that the left flank of their party might try to use his passing as a call to action for a health care overhaul more to their liking. They were concerned such a push could produce a backlash and alienate Republicans the administration is desperately courting.

It's not at all certain that Kennedy's death will have an impact on the health care debate.

After all, he's been absent from the high-stakes negotiations over its key elements virtually all year. While his staff has been deeply involved in the talks, it's been clear since Kennedy's diagnosis last year with a serious form of brain cancer that he would not be a broker as he was on many previous debates on health care, education and immigration.

"This whole year has in essence been the post-Kennedy era," said Joseph Antos, a health policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "This isn't a matter of guessing what a great man would have done; this is a matter of solving real problems now."

Still, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a key player on the measure in Kennedy's absence, said his death should cool some of the heated rhetoric surrounding the issue.

"My hope is that this will maybe cause people to take a breath, step back and start talking with each other again in more civil tones about what needs to be done," Dodd said, "because that's what Teddy would do."

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Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Oak Bluffs, Mass., and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS spelling of Huckabee in paragraph 11.)