x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Kennedy's death leaves Liberal majority 'more fragile'

Proponents of healthcare reform may have to rethink tactics to get legislation passed before a Senate election in Massachusetts.

A woman adds a candle to a makeshift memorial during a candlelight vigil for senator Edward Kennedy in Washington, DC.
A woman adds a candle to a makeshift memorial during a candlelight vigil for senator Edward Kennedy in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON // The death of Ted Kennedy, the legendary senator from Massachusetts, leaves a key vacancy in Barack Obama's Democratic coalition that could loom large as the president and his party seek to pass a massive healthcare reform bill. Without Kennedy, Democrats and two like-minded independents occupy 59 seats in the 100-seat Senate, one vote shy of the coveted 60-vote majority needed to bypass Republican efforts to block legislation. Meanwhile, the Democratic majority is riddled with uncertainties: Robert Byrd, the ailing senator from West Virginia, has been too frail to vote; Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, has signalled that he may not support the president's plan, and several conservative Democrats, known as Blue Dogs, have revolted once and may do so again. On the other side of the aisle, only a few Republicans have shown any willingness to support the Democrats, underscoring the value each vote has as the contentious healthcare debate resumes next month. Kennedy's death "makes the majority far more fragile", said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of political communications at American University in Washington. He also noted that in losing Kennedy, Democrats are now without their best bipartisan negotiator. "The loss of his voice, his skills, his vision, his insight and his camaraderie across the aisle has definitely made it more difficult for the president to get his reform through." As his condition deteriorated, Kennedy foresaw the void his absence would leave behind. His last public act as senator was to send a letter - written in July - to Massachusetts political leaders asking that Deval Patrick, the governor, be granted the power to immediately appoint a successor to his senate seat in the event of his death. Massachusetts law mandates that a special election be held 145 to 160 days after a seat becomes vacant. That means the vote for Kennedy's replacement could take place sometime near the end of January, which may be long after the healthcare legislation reaches the Senate floor. In his letter, Kennedy emphasised the importance of having "two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election". He also stipulated that if the law is changed, the successor selected by the governor should provide an "explicit personal commitment" not to run in the special election. In many US states, successors are hand-picked by the governor. Such was the case in Illinois after Mr Obama moved to the White House and in Delaware when Joe Biden relinquished his seat to become vice president. The Massachusetts law, ironically, was changed by Democrats in 2004, when Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was running for president. Democrats at the time were hoping to prevent then-governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from selecting Mr Kerry's potential successor. Mr Kerry eventually lost that election to George W Bush. It is not yet clear whether the political will exists in Massachusetts, a predominantly Democratic state, to change the law again and fulfil Kennedy's wishes. Mr Patrick, the governor, has voiced his support for Kennedy's proposal. However, Republican state legislators, who make up about 10 per cent of the state's legislative seats, have said they oppose it. Therese Murray, the president of the state senate, and Robert DeLeo, the state's house speaker, both Democrats, have not indicated whether they support the request. The state's Democratic legislators are said to be wary of the perception that they change laws solely to benefit a political party. Short of a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority, Senate Democrats have at least one other option: they can pass healthcare reform through a procedural tactic known as "reconciliation", which limits debate and would only require a simple 51-vote majority for a bill to pass. Critics note, however, that the reconciliation process, meant only for bills affecting federal revenues, may require the healthcare legislation to be rewritten or divided into several parts. sstanek@thenational.ae