Print media transcribe GOP excuse -- Kennedy's absence -- for obstruction on health reform

The Associated Press and The Washington Post repeated the Republican claim that Sen. Ted Kennedy's absence from the health care debate prevented lawmakers from reaching a bipartisan compromise and that had Kennedy been present, agreement on health care reform would have been more likely. Several progressive commentators have identified this talking point as GOP spin intended to disguise Republicans' obstructionism, with's Joan Walsh, for example, stating that “absolutely no evidence supports that point of view,” and blogger Ezra Klein noting that Kennedy's committee has already reported out a bill.

AP reports "[s]ome lawmakers" blame stalemate on Kennedy's absence, quotes GOP senator claiming “we probably would have an agreement by now.” From an August 27 AP article:

In an era of bitter political division, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's death silenced a singular voice of bipartisanship at a time when colleagues are struggling with angry constituents and each other over an elusive plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Some lawmakers said Tuesday the current stalemate is the result of Kennedy's absence for the past few, crucial months. Some hope to rescue the embattled legislation as his legacy.

It's not clear that the post-Kennedy Senate includes anyone with the credibility among ideological opponents, the dealmaking skills or the inside knowledge to strike a quick agreement.

“There is nobody else like him,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who alternated with Kennedy over the years as chairman and ranking minority-party member of the health committee. “If he had been physically up to it and been engaged on this, we probably would have an agreement by now.”

“Teddy was the only Democrat who could move their whole base,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said. “If he finally agreed, the whole base would come along even if they didn't like it.”

Washington Post quotes GOP senators blaming stalemate on Kennedy's absence. From the August 27 Washington Post article, “Both Parties Mourn Loss of Kennedy in Health-Care Debate”:

Three GOP senators suggested in their remembrances of Kennedy that Democrats will need more than respectful conversation to gain bipartisan support for a health-care bill. Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) lamented Kennedy's absence in the negotiations.

“I think we may have made progress on this health-care issue if he had been there,” McCain told CNN. “He had this unique capability to sit people down at a table together -- and I've been there on numerous occasions -- and really negotiate, which means concessions. And so, he not only will be missed, but he has been missed.”

“I believe if he had been active the last few months, we would have some sort of consensus agreement,” said Gregg, a passionate advocate of Medicare reform who has sat out Senate deliberations on perhaps the most extensive revisions ever to that program.

“We would have worked it out. We would have worked it out on a bipartisan basis,” Hatch, who co-authored numerous health-care bills with Kennedy over the years, said on CNN. “I'll be happy to work in a bipartisan basis any day, any time ... but it's got to be on something that's good and not just some partisan hack job.”

Other Republicans played down prospects that opponents of reform would reconsider their position. “Certainly people honor Sen. Ted Kennedy for all of his work,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) told CNBC. “But at the end of the day, this is a democracy, and I think the voice of the people have been heard quite loudly in the month of August.”

Progressives have identified this claim as GOP spin

Walsh: “Despite Sen. Orrin Hatch's statement this weekend that Kennedy would have brokered a bipartisan healthcare bill, absolutely no evidence supports that point of view.” Discussing Hatch's suggestion on NBC's Meet the Press that had Kennedy been more involved in health care reform negotiations, “we would have worked it out,” Walsh wrote:

I have to say: Despite Sen. Orrin Hatch's statement this weekend that Kennedy would have brokered a bipartisan healthcare bill, absolutely no evidence supports that point of view. So Democrats must actively refute Hatch's (now multiple) statements insisting healthcare reform would have Republican support if Kennedy were still in the Senate, glad-handing and arm-twisting.

That's completely dishonest. If Kennedy moved hearts and minds in the Senate, it would be by moving Republicans towards sanity. Since I don't believe Republicans have any interest in bipartisan compromise, a healthy Ted Kennedy would be kicking Republican asses -- while possibly treating them warmly in person. A healthy Ted Kennedy would never have put up with the unhealthy politics of the Republican Party on healthcare -- and Orrin Hatch should be ashamed, on the occasion of Kennedy's death, to have said otherwise. [, 8/26/09]

National Journal's John Mercurio: Republicans “using Kennedy as a convenient foil.” In an August 26 article, Mercurio wrote:

Last weekend on ABC's “This Week,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Kennedy's absence had made a “huge, huge difference” in the health care debate. “No person in that institution is indispensable, but Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate,” he said.

McCain's words are a touching tribute. But are they an accurate take on today's political landscape? Given the red-meat tone of the GOP's rhetoric this summer, I can't imagine Republicans would have been so kind to Kennedy if he had been healthy and fully engaged in the health care battle. It's more likely that Kennedy, a fierce advocate of the so-called public option, would have fallen into his common caricature of big-government liberal, his name and likeness bandied about with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as emblematic of Democrats' “power grab” and push for a “trillion-dollar-plus government takeover” of the health care industry.

So why has the Kennedy story developed such strong legs? Because reporters are getting fed the string by operatives from both parties, who see it as a way to help score political points at a defining point in the campaign cycle.

For Republicans, it's a chance to humanize themselves at little cost. Worried that they'll ultimately be viewed as the party that blocked meaningful reform, they are using Kennedy as a convenient foil. If only he had been here, they say, Kennedy would have used his magic touch to reach a meaningful compromise, bringing us on board. That sounds awfully nice, but it's still hard to believe that Republicans, 47 percent of whom believe the Democratic bill includes “death panels,” would somehow roll over and obey the man they publicly demonized for decades. [National Journal, 8/26/09]

Klein: “This stuff just isn't plausible ... neither Kennedy nor his staff can make the deals for another committee. In an August 24 post on his blog, Klein wrote:

Speaking to George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, John McCain argued that the real hindrance to health-care reform is the absence of Sen. Ted Kennedy. “It's huge that he's absent,” McCain said, “not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the health-care reform might be in a very different place today.”

This stuff just isn't plausible. Kennedy was around in 1994 and there was no deal. More to the point, Kennedy's committee, the HELP Committee, has passed health-care reform. Kennedy's staff, as you might expect, led their effort. But neither Kennedy nor his staff can make the deals for another committee. If Kennedy were in the Senate now, health care would be exactly where it is: Through Ted Kennedy's Committee and stuck in the morass of Max Baucus's Gang of Six.

Meanwhile, if John McCain wants to honor Ted Kennedy, he shouldn't just talk the guy up. He should play a constructive role in passing the legislation that Kennedy considered the cause of his life. McCain says that Kennedy “had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions,” but surely McCain can decide what concessions those should be and present them to Max Baucus -- or the New York Times -- in exchange for his vote.

One of the frustrating elements of the process has been that no Republicans have released a detailed set of concessions that would win their vote. Everyone just professes hopefulness and demands ill-defined “concessions.” Or they say they'd vote for health-care reform if everything were different -- if Ted Kennedy weren't sick, maybe, or we weren't in a recession. The fact that neither event has much of anything to do with the desirability of health-care reform suggests that they might not actually be the core of the problem. [, 8/24/09]

MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell: “They've had a bill, they voted against it. That bill was conceived of by Chairman Kennedy.” From the August 24 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann (accessed via Nexis):

KEITH OLBERMANN (host): We'll get to the introduction of the death book later on. Probably death spam somewhere being introduced by the Republicans. But for sheer egregiousness, the two senators invoking Ted Kennedy's name into this, I'd like your reaction to that.

O'DONNELL: Well, this is kind of shocking. Orrin Hatch and John McCain both saying that if Ted Kennedy were here, we would have a deal, they would be able to work out a deal with him. This strikes me as them both just trying to portray themselves as reasonable men who could do business with another reasonable man.

They both voted against -- they've already voted on this -- they voted against the Kennedy bill in the Kennedy committee, in the health, education, labor, and pensions committee. They've had a bill, they voted against it.

That bill was conceived of by Chairman Kennedy. He wasn't there at the time of the votes. Chris Dodd was there getting it through the committee for Chairman Kennedy. The chairman made his wishes known very clearly.

John McCain, a member of the committee, Orrin Hatch a member of the committee could have tried to work with Senator Kennedy at the beginning and they rejected that possibility.

Fifteen years ago, Orrin Hatch was also on both the Kennedy committee and the Senate Finance Committee where I was working. He voted against the Kennedy bill that came through the Kennedy committee then. He then personally complained to me about how ugly and partisan the process was, run by Senator Kennedy, in Senator Kennedy's committee. And he was hoping that we would do a more bipartisan process in the finance committee, which we did do.

But Orrin Hatch was not part of anything Ted Kennedy tried to do on this, 15 years ago, and nothing that he tried to do this year. Same thing with John McCain. I don't know why they said that. They know that they didn't at any moment engage in real negotiations with Senator Kennedy this year.

OLBERMANN: It's flack I think they call it when the submariners use it and it's also tasteless but, you know, if you want to invoke Senator Kennedy and live up to his standards, then, you know, act like a senator.