Ted Kennedy’s Health Bill

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There was more than little poignance in this statement that was just issued from Hyannis Port. It concerns something that happened minutes ago in the historic Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today released the following statement regarding the Affordable Health Choices Act:

“This room is a special place. In this room, my two brothers declared their candidacy for the presidency. Today, the nation takes another major step toward reaching the goals to which they dedicated their careers, and for which they gave their lives. They strived, as I have tried to do, for a fairer and more just America – a nation where every American could share fully in the promise of quality health care.

As you vote today, know that I am with you in heart and mind and soul, and I wish very much that I could be with you in person.

I could not be prouder of our committee. We have done the hard work that the American people sent us here to do. We have considered hundreds of proposals. Where we have been able to reach principled compromise, we have done so. Where we have not been able to resolve our differences, we have treated those with whom we disagree with respect and patience. I thank all the members of our committee – Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike – for their dedication and devotion to the great cause of quality, affordable health care for all our people.

Extraordinary thanks go to Chris Dodd. No man has ever had a truer or more generous friend than he has been to me, and no cause has ever had a more able leader than he has been in the great effort to enact health reform.

It is a cause that knows no boundary of party, region, or philosophy. It is a cause that can and should unite us all as Americans. We know, however, that our work is not over – far from it. As we move from our committee room to the Senate floor, we must continue the search for solutions that unite us, so that the great promise of quality affordable health care for all can be fulfilled.

As I said, this room is a special place – and I believe our committee’s actions have added a glorious chapter to the honor roll of history that has been made here.

Americans are an extraordinary people. We have created a nation of liberty and justice. We have defeated forces of oppression, and we have spread prosperity and progress across the globe. When the American people are on the march, there is no barrier that can resist them, no obstacle that can block their path.

The American people are on the march once more, and they will not stop until quality, affordable health care is the birthright of every American. And we are with them every step of the way.”

On a party-line vote, Ted Kennedy’s committee gave him his health care reform bill, the first concrete step toward a goal for which Kennedy has fought for nearly four decades. As he noted, the measure stll has a long way to go before becoming a reality. Four other congressional committees must act, then it must go to the House and Senate floors, and then to what is likely to be a bitter struggle this fall in a conference committee. Its ultimate success is far from guaranteed. But this development–coupled with the unveiling of legislation yesterday by three House committees–means Kennedy’s dream of health coverage for every American is closer than it has ever been before.

That Kennedy, who is fighting brain cancer, should not be there for the vote is a sad thing, no matter what side of the debate you are on. And yet, it is in some ways a validation of what had looked like an incongruous choice when he made it all the way back in 1981. Kennedy was returning to the Senate a diminished figure after his failed quest to be President, and by seniority, he had an option at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution: He could become ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, or take the same post at the far less glamorous panel then known as the Labor and Public Welfare Committee. Kennedy picked Labor—a decision he would later call one of the most important of his career. “I felt that it was going to be in areas of human need for the average family that were going to be under greatest assault in the Reagan Administration,” he told the Boston Globe more than a decade later. “And unfortunately, it worked out that way.” This committee also gave him standing to work on health reform, hardly a front-burner issue back then, but one that he would continue to push forward bit by bit, whenever he saw an opening.

When the HELP Committee started “marking up” health legislation in Kennedy’s absence a few weeks back, the whole endeavor had fallen into disarray. It fell to Kennedy’s closest friend in the Senate–Chris Dodd–to pick up the pieces. “I got saddled with this responsibility, obviously at a late hour,” Dodd said wryly as the committee prepared to vote. Yet Dodd’s effort was extraordinary, and the bill that emerged is everything Ted would have wanted it to be. Which Republicans are arguing is not necessarily a good thing. “The HELP Committee bill is a complete failure that would make our health care system even sicker than it is today,” complained ranking Republican Mike Enzi.

As the process goes forward, the shape of the legislation is certain to change. For starters, it will have to be merged with a more conservative measure being worked on by the Senate Finance Committee. And there will be other compromises between now and the time the bill reaches–if it reaches–Barack Obama’s desk. But if this turns out to be the year in which health reform finally happens, it is fitting that Kennedy’s committee should be the one to put its stamp on it.