Senator Ted Kennedy and Health Care Reform Bipartisanship

August 26, 2009

With the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy (1932-2009), the consumer has lost a great friend. Especially at this time, when so many partisan voices are raised to a fever pitch over the subject of health care reform, it is helpful to be reminded that “reaching across the aisle” and seeking compromise is always more productive.

A good friend and former aide of Senator Kennedy wrote an essay last year about him, and shared a little-known example of what we are talking about. We at the Consumer Warning Network, with his permission, want to share it with you:

TEDDY:  A GOOD AND DECENT MAN

There she was, my secretary, standing in the doorway saying, “There’s this guy on the phone for you who says he’s Ted Kennedy, and it sounds just like him”.

That’s how it started.  It was December 1970.  Senator Kennedy had just been reelected and due to the defeat of Senator Yarborough in Texas that year Kennedy was in line to become Chairman of the Senate Health Subcommittee when the 92nd Congress convened the following month.

To my amazement he wanted to talk to me about becoming Staff Director of his Subcommittee.  We talked twice in his office in the Capitol and by early February I was on the job.

Ted Kennedy has always been lightning rod.  He is adored by millions and simultaneously reviled by millions.  But, as his decades of public service in the Senate have rolled by and his legislative accomplishments have piled up, his friends and foes alike have come to agree that hard work, political skill, and relentless determination have made him a giant in the Senate.

There is no doubt that he is the colossus of the Senate and has earned a place in this nation’s history as one of its greatest Senators.

I’m going to tell you the story of how it all began because that will tell you how he has been able to achieve so much—not for himself, but for all of us.

In the year before he became Chairman of the Senate Health Subcommittee Senator Yarbrough had formed a panel of distinguished scientists and laymen to advise the Committee on the steps that would be necessary to launch a War on Cancer in America.

Basically, their report called for a huge expansion of basic and clinical biomedical research into ways to prevent and treat cancer.

The responsibility in 1971 to turn their report into legislation and enact it fell to Senator Kennedy and his Subcommittee.  He wasted no time.  His bill, S.34, was drafted and introduced.  Public hearings on the bill were held.  There were many who supported its passage and a few who were opposed.  But the most significant opposition had nothing whatever to do with the merits of the bill.

It was political.  Remember that the year was 1971, Richard Nixon was President, and he would be up for reelection the following year.  Nixon and his inner circle, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, were paranoid that Ted Kennedy would oppose Nixon in 1972.  And they were suspicious that his leadership on the Cancer bill was the stalking horse in his bid to defeat Nixon.

So, in self-imposed desperation, the Nixon Administration put together an alternative cancer proposal and the Ranking Minority Member of our Subcommittee, Senator Peter Dominick (R-CO), introduced it in the Senate.  Thus, our Subcommittee had two bills before it, the Kennedy bill and the Nixon-Dominick bill, S1828.

The Kennedy bill was full of substance based upon the recommendations of the Panel of Scientific Experts.  S.1828 had little substance.  Its purpose was to derail what the White House incorrectly believed was Kennedy’s nascent presidential gambit.

In March we took both bills to a mark-up session of the Subcommittee. This is where a bill can be amended, approved, and sent on its way to the Senate floor for final action.  It looked like the mark-up would degenerate into acrimony and deadlock.  But it didn’t.

After opening remarks by Senators Kennedy and Dominick, who, by the way, was a very conservative Republican, Kennedy did something astonishing.  He said, “Peter what we need to focus on is getting help and assistance to the people of this nation on cancer.”  And then he proposed that the Subcommittee approve the Nixon-Dominick bill, not the Kennedy bill.  Although he went on to point out that he intended to offer an amendment to that bill to strike all of its language and substitute all of the language of the Kennedy bill.  And then Kennedy went further and said, “Peter, why don’t you report the bill?”  Kennedy was proposing that a Republican would write the bill’s report, and manage the bill on the Senate Floor. He was voluntarily giving up the leadership on the bill to the Republicans!

Something like this NEVER HAPPENS.  But it did.  Dominick’s staff aide bolted out of his chair and came over to me and whispered, “Lee, I don’t know how to write a Committee Report.”  I leaned back and said, “Don’t worry.  We’ll do it together.”  And we did.

After a moment of stunned silence Dominick said, “That’ll be fine, Ted.”  And the bill was on its way to passage.  The corrosive political issue emanating from the Nixon White House had been defused.  And, more importantly, Kennedy and Dominick now had a basis for cooperation that made possible the passage of much more health legislation in the years that followed.

Kennedy had cast the die.  From that point forward his approach to legislation was always to try to reach across the aisle and find ways to compromise with the Republicans. He’s done it with the likes of Republican senators Schweiker (PA), Hatch (UT), Quayle (IN), and now Enzi (WY).  That, more than any other single factor, is what has enabled him to put such a vast array of legislative building blocks in place over the past 45 years.  That is why he has earned and deserves the respect and admiration that has now begun to pour in not just from Liberals, but also from Conservatives.

On the morning of December 23, 1971 Senator Kennedy and I went to the White House for President Nixon’s signing ceremony of the War on Cancer Legislation.  Not surprisingly, it was a love in.  But what I did not know until the mid-80s with the public release of more of the Nixon Papers, was that in the afternoon of December 23rd Nixon met with Charles “Chuck” Colson to discuss Colson’s proposed “Dirty Tricks” to be used against Senator Kennedy in the forthcoming New Hampshire Presidential Primary, which, of course, Kennedy never entered.  Paranoia dies hard!!

The passage of the Cancer legislation ignited the explosive growth of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It became and still is the preeminent biomedical research organization on earth.  Over the decades NIH’s research breakthroughs have been translated into medical advances that have benefited millions of Americans.  Cancer, unfortunately, hasn’t been eradicated.  It remains an implacable foe.  But the progress has been remarkable.  And, while Senator Kennedy would never attribute any of that progress to himself, I can, because I know what he did.

And so I say to my conservative friends here in the Bible-Belt, and I have many such friends, the next time that you hear about this boisterous Irishman from Massachusetts pause and think about what he has done that may have helped someone in your family.

Unless I miss my guess, this story ain’t over.  If Barack Obama wins the Presidency and if he is daring enough to pick Republican, Senator, Chuck Hagel as his running mate, it might just be the prescription needed for the passage of the Senator Kennedy’s major unfinished piece of health legislation—Health Care Reform.  If President Obama sends that measure to Congress next year, this good and decent man will find a way to get it passed, even if he has to do it from his bed in the Massachusetts General Hospital.

LeRoy Goldman

Hendersonville (NC) Times-News
June 15, 2008