Liberals and conservatives, at odds over health care, are competing to use the legacy of Sen. Edward Kennedy to further their goals.
The left claims the Senate's liberal champion would have settled for nothing less than universal care and a new government-run insurance option. Republican foes of those ideas say the Democrats should take a lesson from Kennedy's gift for cutting a pragmatic deal and sacrifice some of their priorities in the interest of a bargain the GOP could support.
Even President Obama's secretary of health and human services got into the act Friday, telling seniors at a wellness center in a former theater named for Kennedy's family that the driving question on health care should be: “What would Teddy do?”
It's a question that defies a clear or obvious answer, and it may hold little relevance at a time when the health care overhaul is teetering. But Kennedy's memory has become a kind of Rorschach test in the debate, with both sides seeing what they want to see in his example.
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“There is going to be a battle over his legacy on health care,” said Roger Hickey of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. Despite Republican contentions that honoring Kennedy means compromise, he said, “No one wants to pass a half-measure in tribute to Ted Kennedy.”
Kennedy's friend, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has suggested naming the health overhaul legislation after Kennedy, and a liberal political action committee, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee PAC, has launched a Web site, www.HonorKennedy.com, to press for passage of legislation that reads like a Democratic wish-list and is anathema to GOP lawmakers. The group has gathered 40,000 signatures on a petition to be delivered Monday to Capitol Hill that urges senators to name the measure, which passed the Senate health committee last month, “The Kennedy Bill,” and pass it – “and nothing less.”
Such calls have drawn loud protests from some on the right, where conservative commentators are accusing Democrats of a crass effort to use Kennedy's death to further their political fortunes.
“They're going to turn this into the biggest political rally you've ever seen. They can't help themselves,” said radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Conservatives have also tried to use Kennedy's death after a long illness to score their own points in the health care debate. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Hukabee said Thursday on his radio show that it would be absurd to enact a far-reaching health overhaul in Kennedy's name when he “gave us the most shining example of why this particular bill is so bad.”
Huckabee suggested that Democrats “would devalue older people's lives, or encourage them to accept less care to save money” and noted that Kennedy by contrast chose a costly operation and painful follow-up treatments in the face of his own terminal diagnosis. Democrats dispute that the elderly would be denied appropriate terminal care under their proposals.