Policy Documents

Health Care Bill Defeat Could Be Kennedy's Last Legacy

January 17, 2013

This column originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday, January 16th. For decades the loudest and most influential U.S. Senate voice in favor of nationalized, government-run health care was the late Edward M. Kennedy. Now Kennedy's final political decision carries ramifications no one could have expected: the future of the nation's health care system.

As Kennedy's health deteriorated a year ago, political insiders speculated he would retire and make way for a chosen heir while his party was riding high and a special election victory seemed a foregone conclusion. But the aging Democrat was always a stubborn soul, and he refused, hoping to cast a final vote in favor of the socialized health care regime he had fought for during his 47 years in office--an opportunity that did not arrive in time.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts voters will head to the polls to determine his replacement: Democrat Attorney General Martha Coakley or Republican State Senator Scott Brown. Brown, an independent-minded moderate with bipartisan voter support, has waged a surprisingly competitive campaign. The nation has soured on the Democrats' policies, and polls indicate Brown narrowly leads Coakley or is within the margin of error, even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Massachusetts three-to-one.

This race has huge, national implications. If Brown pulls off a monumental upset, the Democrats would still have a solid majority in the Senate, but Brown would be--and has promised to be--the deciding vote against Obama's health care overhaul.

Brown, who supported the Massachusetts health care reforms, says the current legislation goes too far: "You're talking about another trillion dollars in costs, a half a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts; military people, if you're veterans, you're going to have cuts in Tricare, and it's not good. We need to go back to the drawing board."

The possibility Kennedy's seat could cast the vote that sinks nationalized health care reform is a jarring one for national Democrats, one reason the party organizations have already sunk millions of dollars into what was expected to be a noncompetitive senatorial race, and it has spawned reports the majority leadership on Capitol Hill is considering ways to block Brown from participating in the Senate health care vote if it comes after the January 19 election.

There are procedures that could allow them to force the legislation through before Brown is seated, but they would require cooperation from Democrats in marginal districts and states, many of whom will have to reconsider their support for the bill if opposition to it helps propel Brown to victory in an overwhelmingly Democrat state. Such a move would be one last sign that Washington's monopartisan leadership has no intention of listening to the irrelevant masses during its march toward bureaucracy-managed health care with higher costs and lower quality.

Brown openly and strongly opposes the bill some referred to as "Ted Kennedy's Legacy Project." When asked in the final Senate debate whether he really intended, if elected, to help block the bill while sitting where Kennedy once reigned, Brown responded without missing a beat: "With all due respect, it's not the Kennedys' seat, and it's not the Democrats' seat; it's the people's seat."

Serving as a Senate staffer during the Medicare Part D debate, I recall witnessing one of Kennedy's sessions, as he held court on the floor, surrounded by a group of Senators listening to his words like eager children as the self-described "Lion of the Senate" dictated what was going to happen, when, and how. The irony that Kennedy's last decision could turn U.S. health care policy away from his desired plan is more evidence the American people may be tired of having things dictated to them from Washington.

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org), a former political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, is Managing Editor of Health Care News.