Obama Health Secretary Pushes KennedyCare: 'What Would Teddy Do?'

HHS secretary says passing health reform would honor Ted Kennedy's legacy.

ByTeddy Davis
August 28, 2009, 2:48 PM

Aug. 28, 2009 — -- Democratic efforts to tie health reform to the memory of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., continued Thursday when President Obama's health secretary visited a senior wellness center which is housed in what used to be the Kennedy Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"Hopefully, at every step of the way, people will ask themselves: 'What would Teddy do?' and move it forward," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

"If people are truly interested in honoring his legacy," she added, "the best possible legacy is to pass health reform this year and get President Obama a bill he can sign."

Visit ABC News' special section on Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Visit ABC News' special section on health care.

Sebelius, a co-chair of Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign in Kansas, is the latest Democrat who is hoping that Kennedy's influence in death may be even stronger than it was when he was alive as Democrats push for President Obama's top domestic priority. Democratic officials hope that invoking Kennedy's passion for the issue will counter slippage in support for health care reform.

Immediately following Kennedy's death, some liberal activists like Ralph G. Neas of the National Coalition on Health Care, were hopeful that some of Kennedy's Republican friends, like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, would be persuaded to return to the bargaining table.

There are few signs, however, of that happening.

"Frankly, I'm getting a little bit upset at these people, trying to take advantage of this and saying we now have to pass health-care reform because of Ted," Hatch told ABC News. "Well, Ted wouldn't want it passed if it wasn't good."

Key for Dems: Using Kennedy's Memory to Rally Members of Their Own Party

Democratic strategists are now saying that the key for the Obama administration is how they use Kennedy's memory to rally support among fellow Democrats for comprehensive health-care reform.

Some members of the president's own party have wavered on certain aspects of Obama's health-care plan such as the creation of a government insurance option which would compete with private insurers.

"There will be significant pressure on all of the Democrats: Do they want to be known in history as someone who blocked what was probably Sen. Kennedy's dying wish?" said a Democratic strategist who spoke with ABC News on the condition that his name not be used.

This strategist said the pressure brought to bear on recalcitrant Democrats could be made even greater if Kennedy's widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, or his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., were personally to speak out on the issue.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and an assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that it was "premature" to be talking about how members of Kennedy's family might become involved in the health-care fight.

"Those are personal decisions that the family will have to make at the appropriate time," said Van Hollen.

While Van Hollen did not call on Kennedy's family to speak out on health-care reform, the Maryland Democrat did join Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., in saying that health-reform legislation should be named after Kennedy.

"I think that would be appropriate to honor his memory in that way," Van Hollen told ABC News. "He saw this last bit on health care reform as unfinished work."

While Sebelius was comfortable explicitly invoking Kennedy to push health-care reform, the White House was more reluctant.

Asked at Thursday's press briefing about liberal groups trying to do a "win one for the Gipper"-type push on health care, White House spokesman Bill Burton said: "Our country lost a beloved leader and the politics and implications of that are the last thing on the president's mind right now."

Watch ABC News' Special: "Remembering Ted Kennedy."

ABC News' Avery Miller, David Chalian, and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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