Sen. Edward Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Wednesday becomes the first panel in Congress to formally start work on a bill to overhaul the nation's health system. But Kennedy, still undergoing treatment for brain cancer, won't be there in person to drop the gavel.
"I'm a designated hitter until he gets back here, and no one wants him back here more than I do to be a part of this and to lead this effort," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who has been filling in for Kennedy for most of the year. Dodd is not only the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, he is also one of Kennedy's closest friends and confidants in the chamber.
Kennedy has reportedly been intimately involved, mostly by telephone, in the development of the bill that the committee will spend the next week or so debating.
"He is in constant contact with his colleagues in Congress and the White House, and he's got a very talented and thoughtful staff," says Ron Pollack of Families USA, one of several stakeholder groups that has had representatives meeting with committee aides since last summer to work on a bill.
And Dodd has "done one heckuva job" filling in, said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). Dodd has not only overseen passage of a major health committee bill giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco, he's also shepherded his own banking committee's bills on housing and credit card reform.
Not The Same Without Kennedy In The Chamber
Still, nothing can replace having Kennedy physically in the room, says John Rother of the AARP, who has followed the Senate for more than three decades. "If you're not there physically for the group decision-making process — that's a markup — it's really a setback," says Rother, referring to the formal name of the committee's voting process.
"Although Chris Dodd is certainly a capable senator and Kennedy's best friend in the Senate, it's just not the same when it's not Kennedy in person," Rother says.
Harkin agrees that there's a mystique about Kennedy that no one in the chamber can match. "As we always say around here, if you want to get a bill through, give it to Kennedy. He knows how to get things done. He just knows how to make the deals and how to get everybody working together."
Republicans on the committee are among those who have complained loudest in Kennedy's absence. "If he were here, he and I would be working something out," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told the Los Angeles Times last week. Hatch and Kennedy, although mostly ideological opposites, have a long list of legislation they've successfully collaborated on, from bills funding AIDS prevention and treatment, to providing health insurance for children, to overhauling the Food and Drug Administration.
His Life's Work
And then there's simply Kennedy's desire to bring to a conclusion his life's work — guaranteeing health coverage for every American. Pollack of Families USA says that may work in Kennedy's favor no matter what his health status. "Everyone knows this is his top wish, and whether he is here — physically present — or whether he's in touch with people or in some other fashion, I think people will dedicate this legislation to him. And I think the strong commitment he's made to this is going to make a huge difference in getting health reform accomplished this year."
Aides say they hope Kennedy will be able to return to the Capitol in the coming days or weeks as the bill reaches a more critical stage. But they've said that before.