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Kennedy Leaves Health Care Legacy, Democrats Call for Reform Efforts to Continue

BY Lea Winerman  August 26, 2009 at 5:40 PM EST

Ted Kennedy campaigning in support of SCHIP; Getty Images

But his death late Tuesday came as one of his long-term goals, universal health care for Americans, remains the subject of heated debates around the country.

Congress, still in its August recess, is considering the most significant changes to the U.S. health care system in a generation. Yet Kennedy, ill with brain cancer and absent from his post as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, had to sit out most of the debate to date — though he worked behind the scenes on the committee’s bill. Political analysts are assessing the effect of his death on the legislation’s chances for enactment.

Listen to former Kennedy senior health adviser David Nexon discuss his legacy:

Kennedy’s death also means that the Democrats’ tenuous hold on a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate is officially gone (Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, also ill, has also been absent most of the year.)

Massachusetts law requires Gov. Deval Patrick to hold a special election between 145 to 160 days after the seat becomes vacant. Until then, however, the seat remains empty.

Last week, Kennedy sent a letter to Patrick and Massachusetts legislative leaders asking them to change the law to allow the governor to appoint a short-term replacement to hold the seat until the special election.

Patrick said Wednesday that he supports the change, and the Washington Post reported that a source familiar with negotiations in the state Senate said that there was some momentum building toward changing the law. However, neither state Senate President Therese Murray nor state House Speaker Robert DeLeo has publicly expressed support for the idea, so it is unclear whether the law will be changed.

If a temporary senator is not appointed, Democrats would need the support of the two independents who usually caucus with them plus a Republican senator to prevent filibuster of a health care reform bill.

Meanwhile, Senator Kennedy’s allies in Congress vowed to push through his vision of health care reform.

“Ted Kennedy’s dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Many legislators — allies and political opponents — said that the health reform effort would have gone more smoothly had Kennedy, who was known for his ability to craft political deals across party lines, been able to help shepherd it through the Senate.