Kennedy Death Cuts Broad Health Bill Odds, Hatch Says
By Nicole Gaouette
Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) — Congress is less likely to pass sweeping health-care overhaul legislation following the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, a leading Republican said.
“You’re not going to get this big, broad Democrat spending bill — you’re not going to get Republican support,” Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and close friend of the Massachusetts Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
Hatch said Kennedy’s status as Congress’s leading liberal often convinced Democrats they could support deals he had struck with Republicans. “That’s why Senator Kennedy was so important,” Hatch said. “I don’t know if another Democrat has the same clout in Congress.”
Expanding coverage to nearly 50 million uninsured Americans and lowering health-care costs was Kennedy’s life’s work, colleagues said, and is now President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority. Lawmakers failed to get health-care bills through Congress before the August recess. Obama, who is pushing lawmakers to overhaul a health-care system that accounts for about 18 percent of the nation’s economy, said Aug. 20 that “we’re going to get this done one way or another.”
Hatch said Kennedy provided deep experience on health care, united factions within the Democratic Party and worked well with Republicans.
“Kennedy could bring together all of the base groups of the Democratic Party,” Hatch said on ABC’s “This Week,” recalling that Kennedy worked on health legislation for more than three decades. “In every case, he fought as hard as he could, but when he recognized that he couldn’t get everything he wanted, he worked with the other side. If he was here, I don’t think we’d be in the mess we’re in right now.”
Kennedy’s illness meant he was absent from Congress for much of the past year, though his staff said he kept abreast of the health debate through frequent phone calls. Senator Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who temporarily took over from Kennedy as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told the panel that Kennedy was watching their debate on C-SPAN television and calling him daily to offer feedback.
Four of the five congressional committees with jurisdiction over health have passed bills that would cost about $1 trillion over 10 years. The Senate Finance Committee has stalled over a number of issues, including whether to create a government-run insurance plan, require employers to provide workers with insurance, and impose new taxes that could range from taxing the richest Americans to levies on generous health plans.
Not all Democrats support the idea of a public plan, which Obama has said would be his preferred way to generate more competition among health insurers. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu told CNN she would “tend not to” support a bill that included a public option. “I think we can do it without a public option,” the third-term Democrat said. “Hopefully we can keep working. That’s what Ted Kennedy would want us to do.”
John Kerry, now the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Finance Committee, said he was confident a health-care bill would be passed and he urged Republicans to avoid being “bound by ideology.”
“When we get reality on the table we can have a good conversation,” Kerry said on the ABC program. “I believe we can do this. I think better judgment will prevail.”
When the Senate returns in September, it will take up the bill the Senate health committee put together in July, Dodd said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said the bill is “sitting there,” ready to be worked on with the Finance Committee.
“If we can get these bills together and sit down with each other, we can produce a strong, vibrant, vitally needed national health care legislation on accessibility, quality and affordability,” Dodd said.
Health-care costs now account for about 18 percent of GDP, according to the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, and are projected to rise to 34 percent by 2040.
“The country cannot afford this, Dodd said on CNN. “How we get there is the challenge before us.”
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, said bipartisan cooperation on the issue was crucial. “Doing nothing and thinking that we’re going to get out of this expense is not an option,” Cantwell said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Getting true competition into the system and giving consumers choice is what the Democrats and Republicans should be joining ranks on,” Cantwell said.
Democrats including Senator Charles Schumer of New York have said that if Senate Finance negotiators — three Republicans and three Democrats — can’t reach a deal by Sept. 15, Democrats may have to pass the bill on their own.
The majority party could use a legislative maneuver called reconciliation which allows the Senate to pass a bill with 51 votes instead of the 60 typically needed for controversial pieces of legislation.
During the August recess, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus convened meetings of the six senators on the committee who are working on a bipartisan compromise.
Any agreement they reach would have to be coordinated with a plan passed by the Senate HELP committee. The three House committees with jurisdiction over health will meld their bills together after lawmakers return from recess. The House and Senate bills would have to be reconciled before being voted on by both chambers.
Protests at Meetings
The Senate adjourned on Aug. 7 and will reconvene on Sept. 8. Many of the town hall meetings lawmakers held to discuss health-care during the recess were disrupted by protests.
Administration officials have urged lawmakers to honor Kennedy by getting health reform passed.
“The best possible legacy is to pass health reform this year,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said recently. “Hopefully every step along the way they’ll ask themselves ‘What would Teddy do?’”
Dodd said Kennedy’s death will push his colleagues to work harder at passing legislation.
“We don’t have the luxury of wallowing in our grief; we’ve got to get up and get this done,” Dodd said. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and do what Teddy would have done and get health-care done.”