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Kennedy Dies With "Cause of His Life" Just Out Of Reach

First Posted: 09/26/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:55 PM ET

Edward Kennedy, last of the Kennedy brothers and one of his generation's foremost champions of the less fortunate, died last night with the "cause of his life" -- universal health coverage -- just out of his reach.

As he wrote in Newsweek just last month: "For four decades I have carried this cause--from the floor of the United States Senate to every part of this country. It has never been merely a question of policy; it goes to the heart of my belief in a just society. Now the issue has more meaning for me--and more urgency--than ever before. But it's always been deeply personal, because the importance of health care has been a recurrent lesson throughout most of my 77 years."

Nobody knows how the final vote will turn out in the Senate, where Republicans have so far put up a solid front of opposition, and conservative Democrats are dragging their feet on passage of the kind of far-reaching legislation Kennedy so ardently desired.

Kennedy's vote had been considered as a critical one. But those hoping for a dramatic moment, like the one that took place last year, will no longer get their wish

It was a little more than a year ago, when Democrats in the Senate found themselves two votes short on a crucial Medicare vote, that Kennedy -- diagnosed with brain cancer that spring -- came to the rescue.

Watching Republicans eviscerate Medicare while he lay helpless, hundreds of miles away, was unbearable for him, and on the afternoon of July 9, Kennedy returned, against medical advice, vowing that Medicare would not be slashed because of his failing health. It was his first vote since the diagnosis.

He walked slowly on to the Senate floor and the chamber erupted. Colleagues on both sides of the aisle rose to give the Liberal Lion a standing ovation. It was, said several senators afterward, the most moving scene they had ever witnessed on the Senate floor.

Kennedy raised both his hands toward the Senate president's desk, took a deep breath, and belted out: "Aye!"

"We need one more Republican vote," begged Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip. "One more."

"As I look across the aisle to my friends, the 60th vote is there," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had predicted before the tally.

Indeed it was. An avalanche of Republicans tumbled toward the desk to register their yes votes. Ten switched positions. The filibuster beaten, the Medicare bill passed by a unanimous voice vote.

"Ted's not in the habit of listening to doctors," said his best friend Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) after the vote, choking back tears. "I've been here in the Senate 27 years and I don't recall a moment like this one."

Backers of the current health care battle had long hoped to witness that scene one last time. But it's not to be. Kennedy's absence has left a gaping hole in the health care debate since the beginning of the legislative session, one that Dodd sought to fill as a substitute chairman of the health committee.

There is, however, no one in the Senate like Kennedy on either side of the aisle - no one as widely respected and as able to bring disparate forces together in odd coalitions. He knew what he needed to give up to pull in Republican support, knew just how much he could trade and keep the liberals and, in the end, was the only one who could sell his caucus on the final deal he had cut. With Kennedy's imprimatur, progressives felt comfortable standing behind a deal he had cut.

When Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of Kennedy's greatest admirers in the Senate, dropped out of health care negotiations, he cited his friend's absence as the reason the talks were collapsing.

Kennedy's ability to cut a deal, paradoxically, leaves a legacy that partisans on both sides may point to as justification for their own stubbornness. Progressives may argue that the GOP should come their way to honor Kennedy's lifetime work to expand access to health care. Conservatives may respond that liberals should come their way in order to honor Kennedy's commitment to compromise. In which case, we'll be right back where we were yesterday, with one less lion to tame the Senate jungle.

The loss of Kennedy also leads to a reshuffling of Democratic positioning in the Senate, with high-powered chairmanships opening up.

Dodd has long been considered the successor to Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee chairmanship. Dodd would then be forced to give up the chairmanship of the Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee.

Next in line on banking is South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). Johnson's state is home to a host of financial interests and he has given every indication that he is eager to take the post, but his health calls into question his facility to take it on. In 2006, he needed emergency brain surgery after hemorrhaging and has yet to recover fully. Behind Johnson is Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, followed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

WATCH Kennedy's dramatic return in 2008:

Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America

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