03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Will Step Into Ted Kennedy's Shoes on Health Care

Watching the health care reform debate from the perspective of an interested citizen in Maine, I cannot help but mourn the absence of Ted Kennedy. But not for the reasons you might think.

At the time of his death, Senate leaders noted that the passage of a major health reform package through his beloved Heath Committee was a fitting tribute to his years of dedication to the issue.

No, it wasn't.

A fitting tribute to Senator Kennedy will be President Obama's signing of a significant health care reform package that is supported by more than just the Democrats in Congress.

Some see Kennedy's legacy as the roaring liberal lion, ready to express moral outrage and defend his views on the controversial topics of the day. And surely he was that.

But his lasting legacy may well be the respected liberal legislator who could reach across the aisle to find common ground with equally respected conservatives -- to forge truly bi-partisan solutions to the nation's most pressing problems. Ask Orin Hatch.

This week the House Democrats gleefully unveiled their health care package. In many ways it was a testimony to the skillful leadership of Nancy Pelosi, mastering details, negotiating compromises on an issue which, while crucial to her party, was not one at the top of her personal agenda. However, Pelosi's negotiating, compromising, and arm-twisting were all within her own caucus. Her "victory" will be in passing a bill with near unanimous Democratic support. No Republicans have even talked of signing on.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Reid has crafted a slightly different bill, with the key political proviso being the possibility of states opting out of the public option. That "deal" might win a Democratic majority, but it seems likely to result in a GOP filibuster that the Democrats cannot break.

Reid's deputy, New York's Chuck Schumer, favors his Leader's plan -- perhaps because it is best for their party's political prospects in the fall of 2010. But Schumer's political sidekick, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, his partner in forging Democratic majorities in both houses in the last election, has another variation on the public option in mind. Emanuel and President Obama remain interested in working with Maine's Olympia Snowe on a "trigger mechanism" to bring a public option into play only after private alternatives have demonstrated that they will not work.

Let's be clear. The substantive differences are small, particularly considering the scope of the entire health care package. But the political differences are huge.

Schumer and Reid and Pelosi want a win for congressional Democrats, and they are willing to trample the Republicans to get it.

Emanuel and Obama want at least one Republican on board, to show that they have attempted to work in a bi-partisan spirit. They have. But one Republican hardly constitutes bi-partisanship any more than did the three who voted for the President's stimulus package.

Obama ran for the presidency promising to bring a new kind of politics to Washington. And he has tried. And mostly failed. The acerbic partisanship that has plagued the Capitol has not abated. Congressional Democrats seem to have given up on the effort.

But Olympia Snowe has not. Emanuel, reflecting what is best for his boss's legacy, has not. However, what is missing is the deal maker. What is missing is Ted Kennedy, a respected liberal leader who can step in front of his caucus and say, "We are going to give them enough to make reasonable Republicans comfortable voting for this package -- not because we think the package will be better, but because we know that legislating major social reform should not be a partisan endeavor. And you are all going to come along with me."

Kennedy could do this because no one distrusted his liberal instincts. No one could say he was caving. His credentials were rock solid.

I see a number of Republicans -- not a large number to be sure but more than one or two -- who would welcome that kind of overture. I don't see the Democrat powerful, committed, or "big" enough to make it.

The President understands the importance of health care. He also understands that you cannot pass a piece of legislation affecting one-sixth of our nation's economy based on a straight-line partisan vote. What is needed now is a Democratic Senate leader ready and able to assume the mantle of Ted Kennedy and lead that charge. Big shoes to fill, and so far no one is stepping forth to try them on.

L. Sandy Maisel is director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.