Many of the accounts of Senator Kennedy's death last night at the age of 77 have rightly focused on his astounding record of accomplishment in the U.S. Senate. Most also noted that he passed away without realizing his life-long dream of universal health insurance coverage.
How likely is it that Congress will honor Senator Kennedy's legacy by giving all Americans access to affordable coverage?
It may be unseemly to look at the immediate impact of his death in terms of votes for health care reform, yet until his seat is filled (presumably by a Democrat) by a special election, Democrats will be one vote short of the 60 needed in the Senate to pass health reform on a party-line basis. The special election likely would not take place until January of next year. In one of his last public acts, Senator Kennedy asked the Massachusetts legislature to amend state law to allow for the governor to appoint a replacement on an interim basis until the election is held. Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, supports the change, but is unclear if the legislature (which is not in session) will go along.
Senator Kennedy's record of reaching out to Republicans to make progress on his priorities, without compromising on his core principals, also seems sadly out-of-touch with the partisanship and stridency of the current debate. Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post that, "as much as he was the liberal's liberal, he was the legislator's legislator, a man willing and able to work across party lines, a politician of deep conviction who knew how and when to cut a deal, who believed in the end that the role of a politician was to make progress, if not all at once then step by step."
There don't seem to be many others who have the same ability to reach across the aisle to strike a deal.
Still, we can hope that Congress will do more than eulogize Senator Kennedy with words. It is not too late to seize the opportunity to deliver on his dream of enacting legislation that leads to affordable coverage for all. This will require a willingness among Democrats and Republicans alike to make difficult compromises, to tone down the anger, to speak to each other and the American people honestly about the issues and choices available to them, and to make their arguments respectfully in the spirit of seeking common ground rather than trying to destroy their political opponents.
The Washington Post editorial page writers may have said it best:
"As with most of us, [Senator Kennedy's] final days were another object lesson in the necessity of good health care. He thought it should be available to everyone, and he worked to make that a reality until the end. Moving toward that goal would be the greatest tribute his fellow legislators could pay him."
Today's question: Do you think Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, will be able to honor Ted Kennedy's legacy by making good health care available to all?