Health Care Debate Will Miss Sen. Ted Kennedy

The liberal lion of the Senate had died. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy was 77. He had been battling a brain tumor. His death comes as the Senate wrestles with overhauling the nation's health care system.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We've been listening this morning to the voice of Senator Edward Kennedy. The Massachusetts Democrat who had been battling brain cancer was 77 years old. In the United States Senate, Ted Kennedy found a different voice as a legislative dealmaker for decades. NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us now to talk about Kennedy's career.

Ken, good morning.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I suppose one way to mark the value of Ted Kennedy's presence is to note the importance of his absence. How have things been different in the health care debate in recent months because Ted Kennedy largely wasn't there?

RUDIN: Well, you know, Steve, I mean, it was a cause he worked for for much of his career, much of his life. It was something that meant so much to him, and obviously it meant so much to the Democratic Party. Apparently, he still worked the phones. He had a staff extremely involved in the negotiations.

Now the question, I guess, is would he have made a difference, with the rancor, the misinformation, the anger you've seen at these town hall meetings. Would that have gone away? Maybe not. But you know he wanted to be in the fight.

INSKEEP: Well, you do hear people saying if only Ted Kennedy were there, things would be different. And that does point to the value that people put on his legislative skill.

RUDIN: No question. You know, he's the third-longest senator - serving senator in history, behind Robert Byrd, who's still in the Senate, and Strom Thurmond. He was involved in every piece of social legislation since he first came to the Senate in 1962 - civil rights legislation, education policy, AIDS policy, the Family and Medical Leave Act. He fought the wars from the Senate in Vietnam and Iraq. He fought tax cuts. He battled against conservative Supreme Court nominees.

He also gave that critical endorsement of Barack Obama in last year's fight for the Democrat nomination in Obama's battle against Hillary Clinton. He had a role - a place in every piece of liberal legislation, social legislation for the past 45 years, (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking, though, of ways that he worked with Republicans. His name was on Republican bills. He was a co-sponsor and a big leader in the No Child Left Behind initiative, which was President Bush's initiative. What was it about Ted Kennedy that made him - even though he was a liberal - made him able to work with Republicans and particularly Republican conservatives?

RUDIN: Well, that's probably the hallmark of Kennedy's career, because you're right. He absolutely was a liberal, the liberal lion of the Senate, we keep hearing. And yet he wanted legislation passed. He would be willing to compromise. And the Republicans like Sam Brownback, like Orrin Hatch, like John McCain, like former President Bush, who all had tremendously complimentary things to say about him - there's no question that he was, you know, strong on the left, a true liberal. And yet he wanted to accomplish things and he worked with Republicans to make sure they happened.

INSKEEP: Orrin Hatch seemed to think that he could make a deal because he was such a great liberal, he could deliver liberal interests and he could persuade them that it was worth compromising.

RUDIN: Well, there's a lot of Democrats who are out there who basically are saddened by the fact that Barack Obama perhaps is not more closely involved in health care legislation, things like that, and they feel that if Ted Kennedy were stronger - of course, if he were still alive - he would be fighting for those things, and perhaps they would be far more advanced than it has turned out so far.

INSKEEP: Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR political editor Ken Rudin. And, again, Ted Kennedy has died at 77.

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