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How Will Health Care Reform Fare Without Kennedy, Its Great Champion?05:01
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Sen. Edward Kennedy presides over a hearing on healthcare reform June 1994 on Capitol Hill. Fifteen years later, as reform legislation enters its "make-or-break" period, how will the cause fare without its great champion there to run the show? (AP Photo)
Sen. Edward Kennedy presides over a hearing on healthcare reform June 1994 on Capitol Hill. Fifteen years later, as reform legislation enters its "make-or-break" period, how will the cause fare without its great champion there to run the show? (AP Photo)

The U.S. Senate committee chaired by Sen. Ted Kennedy begins debate Wednesday on amendments to the senator’s latest universal health care bill. Sen. Kennedy is not expected to attend. His treatment for a brain tumor is keeping him in Hyannisport, working the phones during what President Obama has said is the "make-or-break" period for achieving healthcare reform.

It’s a cause Kennedy has championed for more than 40 years. And that prompts the question — how will the cause fare without its champion there to run the show? Partners HealthCare President and CEO James Mongan and Tufts Health Plan President and CEO James Roosevelt Jr. joined us to discuss that question.

Bob Oakes: Jim Roosevelt, you're a frequent visitor to Washington. You were there just a few days ago, negotiating on behalf of health insurers across the country. How's the senator's absence on Capitol Hill being felt?

James Roosevelt: I actually think Ted Kennedy is very much present in the formation of this health care legislation. I have frequent conversations with various members of his staff, and they are involved in so many aspects of what this legislation is going to look like, and I get the strong feeling and sense that he is guiding it very closely.

Dr. Mongan, you've worked in Washington in the Senate, in the Carter White House. Give us a picture of the meetings, the hallway conversations, the memo trading that's happening at this stage of a major bill.

Dr. James Mongan: Well, at this stage of a major bill, things do get very ramped up, if you will, and very much more focused on issues that have been spoken about and generalizations in earlier months, and this is the time when the serious horsetrading begins. And, again, I would say that through the years, nobody's been better at that than our senior senator, and I think we can see currently that he continues to be extremely active in those discussions and debates.

But we both know — we all know — that some of that horsetrading takes place on the floor or in somebody's office, and it takes place face to face. And Sen. Kennedy is likely not to be present for those face-to-face conversations. How does that effect things?

Dr. James Mongan: Well, though there is much truth to what you say Bob, at the same time I'd say that, in this circumstance, that Sen. Kennedy's presence in these issues has been so strong for so many years that people make sure that he is included in those loops. It's difficult for me to imagine a significant conversation taking place where his views would not be sought.

I'd remind you in the debate on health reform here in Massachusetts just a few years ago, Sen. Kennedy was a looming and constant presence even though he was not here in Massachusetts, but doing this on the phone from Washington. So I think in these circumstances, the physical face-to-face nature of this is not as critical as might ordinarily be the case.

So does the White House, does President Obama need Sen. Kennedy on the floor? Is this package at all at risk of not passing because the senator is not there?

James Roosevelt: I would say that the presence of Ted Kennedy — whether in person or by phone or through other senators and staff — is going to be key to getting this passed, but I don't think it requires any one particular method of communication.

I do think this bill is far from a done deal, and when it gets down to making the choices that will have to be made that will keep disparate interests all involved, Ted Kennedy's influence — and moreover the knowledge and respect and the determination that he's built up over the past 20 or 30 years on healthcare — is going to be key to getting this done.

And Dr. Mongan?

Dr. James Mongan: Well, again, I would pick up on what Jim said. As these debates move along to this point, there become four or five critical issues. One that's receiving much attention currently is this issue about a public plan: Should there be a public plan, if so, what should it look like?

And Sen. Kennedy, whether he's physically there in the room or talking with people on the phone, I think has got the — what I might call an exquisite gage in his mind about what the appropriate points of compromise here are.

And he's got enough respect among both the conservatives that they will trust him in terms of a compromise that's put together or floated, and the liberals similarly will take reading from him when it's time to say "yes, this is a compromise we should take" or "no, this is a compromise that completely vitiates what we're trying to do."

Dr. James Mongan, thank you very much. Jim Roosevelt, thank you very much.

James Roosevelt: Happy to be with you.

Dr. James Mongan: Thank you.

This program aired on June 17, 2009.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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