With the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the fate of health care reform could fall on the shoulders of a lesser-known Democrat who is more associated with the corporate world of credit cards and big-dollar bailouts.
One of the Massachusetts Democrat's best friends, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut is the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee after Kennedy himself, who chaired the panel.
Both gregarious New Englanders of Irish descent, Kennedy and Dodd have been friends throughout the decades they served together in the Senate. That's where comparisons begin to break down, however.
A member of one of the world's most famous families, before his death from cancer last week, Kennedy was instantly recognizable as the "liberal lion" of the Senate.
Dodd has been in Congress nearly as long as Kennedy was, but he never became an icon the way Kennedy did. The chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, he is more known for helping pass credit card legislation and last year's massive financial bailouts than for any causes dear to the left. Indeed, this year Dodd finds himself in his first seriously contested reelection bid since he first came to the Senate nearly 30 years ago. For all of that, however, Dodd may be the natural senator to step in to finish the health care reform so dear to Kennedy's heart.
No official announcements have been made on who will take the chairmanship of the HELP Committee now that Kennedy is gone, and Dodd has given no word as to whether he wants to move from Banking to HELP. But in the more than a year before he died, as he was ailing from cancer, Kennedy rarely made it to the Senate. In his absence, Kennedy named Dodd as his chief deputy on health care reform. When the HELP Committee passed its version of health reform before the August congressional recess, Kennedy issued a statement singling Dodd out for thanks. "No man has ever had a truer or more generous friend than he has been to me, and no cause has ever had a more able leader than he has been in the great effort to enact health reform," Kennedy said at the time.
Although the HELP Committee approved its version of health reform, there is still much work left to be done if only Dodd wants to take it on. The Senate Finance Committee is yet to produce its version of reform, and because Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is more interested in attracting GOP votes, the Finance reform plan is likely to look much different than that from HELP.
Dodd could play a key role in helping reconcile the different versions of reform to create the final reform bill that the full Senate votes either up or down. Then, of course, there could be the opportunity to negotiate the differences between the reform versions that would be approved by the House and Senate to create one ultimate reform plan that would go to President Obama for his signature.
Getting all of that done in the current uncertain atmosphere filled by angry town hall protesters will take much leadership if only Dodd wants to be the one to provide it.
This summer, Dodd published an opinion column in a Connecticut newspaper, outlining his vision for health care reform:
For me, the bottom line is that we need to preserve the ability for people to choose their own doctors, hospitals, and insurance plans. If you like what you have, you can keep it; if you don't, you'll finally have affordable options available to you. In my view, that must include a public health insurance option in addition to private options.
It's that public option for a federally run health plan that's generating much of the contention around getting a reform plan that can pass.
Dodd may find that if he takes the lead on health reform, he may well do well by doing good. Dodd's currently locked in a tight race for re-election in 2010.
There is much affection for Kennedy in New England. If Dodd is seen as being a linchpin on finally delivering health care reform, the one major piece of Kennedy's legacy left undone, Dodd could well find himself the beneficiary of a Kennedy-sized sympathy vote come next year.