Sen. Edward Kennedy's death added an emotional catalyst to help pass health care legislation, but lawmakers from both parties said his absence will make it harder for Congress to approve divisive bills in the future.
The Massachusetts Democrat, who died of brain cancer late Tuesday, was praised for his ability to compromise on immigration, education and health care — all policy areas President Obama has said are priorities for his administration.
As Congress faces a lengthy list of controversial bills, some Democrats said they hope Kennedy's legacy will inspire lawmakers to work through their differences and vote for an overhaul of health care, which Kennedy described as "the cause of my life" in a speech last year.
"If temperatures can cool, maybe Teddy's passing will remind people that we're there to get a job done," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who has served as chairman of the Senate's health committee in Kennedy's absence.
In one example that the health care debate had cooled, at least temporarily, an advocacy group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights suspended television ads against the bill out of respect for the Kennedy family, founder Rick Scott said.
Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank, said Kennedy's death is unlikely to change Republican positions on health care. "Republicans have made a strategic decision to stick together to kill the bill," he said.
Kennedy's death also could have an impact on legislation because it alters the political math in the Senate. Democrats had tenuously enjoyed the 60-seat voting majority needed to block filibusters. Now, with 59 votes, Democratic leaders must turn one more Republican to their side on controversial votes.
Massachusetts must hold a special election between 145 and 160 days after a Senate seat becomes vacant. At Kennedy's request, state officials are debating whether to change state law so that Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick may quickly appoint an interim replacement — restoring the party's critical 60th vote.
"There's no such thing as a filibuster-proof Senate but the difference between 60 and 59 on some of these tough, hot-button issues coming up is a considerable one," said Norman Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute.
Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said that one of Kennedy's great strengths was the ability to separate his often fiery liberal rhetoric from his behind-the-scenes desire to compromise. Because of the respect he commanded among Democrats, he could persuade the left wing of his party to support his concessions.
"He was able to make agreements that otherwise couldn't be made," said Gregg, who until recently served as the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate health committee.
Kennedy's final impact on health care may be yet to come, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "Before the key votes take place, there will be a speech … that will be a 'win this for the Gipper' type of speech," said Pollack, who supports the overhaul. "I think it will mean that senators will be committed both in the head and in the heart."
Contributing: Kathy Kiely