U.S. healthcare debate loses champion in Kennedy

WASHINGTON Wed Aug 26, 2009 4:28pm EDT

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy introduces Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, in this April 18, 2008 file photo. Kennedy, a major figure in the Democratic Party who took the helm of one of America's most fabled political families after two older brothers were assassinated, died late on August 25, 2009, CNN said. He was 77. REUTERS/Adam Hunger/Files

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy introduces Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, in this April 18, 2008 file photo. Kennedy, a major figure in the Democratic Party who took the helm of one of America's most fabled political families after two older brothers were assassinated, died late on August 25, 2009, CNN said. He was 77.

Credit: Reuters/Adam Hunger/Files

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Edward Kennedy called providing health insurance for all Americans "the cause of my life." His death deprives the issue of its chief champion just as the political battle reaches a fever pitch.

Encouraged by Kennedy, President Barack Obama made healthcare his top domestic priority and the senator managed, despite his absence from Capitol Hill due to brain cancer, to help draft a bill to overhaul the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system.

A Democrat the same as Obama, Kennedy died late on Tuesday at age 77 at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Without him, Democrats are hard-pressed to push through a healthcare bill, torn between compromising with Republicans and conservative Democrats on one side -- or standing with Kennedy's liberal Democratic wing on a far-reaching reform.

Kennedy had a way of bridging both groups.

Known as a consummate deal-maker, he would bring liberals and conservatives together on contentious legislation. He worked with President George W. Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education act.

His absence from Capitol Hill may have contributed to the country's fractious public debate in August when participants at town hall meetings shouted at politicians about their fears that reform could bankrupt the government and its scope would lead to government-run healthcare.

"If the country ends up without healthcare reform, I think divine misfortune will be to blame," said Paul Light of New York University's Center for the Study of Congress.

"Kennedy was a powerhouse in face-to-face negotiations who was sensitive to the need for bipartisanship," Light said. "The debate is now stalled and getting vicious. Kennedy wouldn't have allowed it."

Kennedy's death and the outpouring of affection for him may even boost the push for legislation that would pay tribute to his lifetime of work.

'MOST EFFECTIVE'

After having felt the wrath of voters over healthcare, Congress returns in September with leaders weighing whether they still have to votes to pass a version in the House of Representatives -- and in the Senate whether talks to reach a bipartisan deal can go forward.

Both chambers were still struggling to find ways to pay for the estimated $1 trillion cost of healthcare overhaul over 10 years in light of expected record federal deficits.

Holy Cross professor of political science David Schaefer suggested Kennedy's death could help the healthcare bill. "If anything, some senators among the Democrats may be persuaded that they are obligated to carry this through as a sign of respect to the senator," Schaefer said.

Many congressional analysts figure competing political and economic pressures will mean some form of a healthcare bill will be signed into law this year. They say it is certain to fall far short of Kennedy's goal of covering all of the estimated 46 million Americans without health insurance.

"Whatever passes, Kennedy deserves credit because he's been the guiding light on this issue for decades," said Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, which tracks Congress for institutional investors.

Born to privilege and wealth, Kennedy led successful efforts to upgrade schools, bolster civil rights, raise the minimum wage, outlaw discrimination and expand healthcare.

SON BATTLED CANCER

Kennedy got much of his passion to expand health insurance to all Americans in 1973 when his then-12-year-old son, Teddy, battled cancer. He survived, but lost a leg to the illness.

"My dad would spend the night in the hospital with my brother," recalled Patrick Kennedy, who now serves in Congress as a member of the House of Representatives.

"Over the years there are countless stories of my dad paying for health insurance for people who didn't have the money," Patrick Kennedy said. "My dad didn't tell me. Other people told me and thanked me."

Kennedy was a popular yet polarizing figure and a frequent target of conservatives.

"The left is exploiting his death and his legacy and they are going to do it, as predicted, to push healthcare," Rush Limbaugh, conservative talk show host, said on Wednesday.

In recent months, with Kennedy's condition deteriorating, the drive to revamp healthcare ran into delays and opposition. Kennedy tried to stay upbeat.

In the July 27 Newsweek magazine, Kennedy wrote: "We will end the disgrace of America as the only major industrialized nation in the world that doesn't guarantee healthcare for all of its people."

(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Jackie Frank and Howard Goller)