WASHINGTON — As the sun set over Arlington National Cemetery Saturday evening, and as the coffin was about to be lowered into the grave, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick read a letter the late Sen. Edward Kennedy had sent to Pope Benedict XVI declaring universal health care "the political cause of my life."
Friends and family pressed that message throughout the weekend — at Kennedy's funeral mass, at his burial service and on the Sunday network talk shows: He badly wanted to overhaul the nation's health care system.
"Teddy fought his entire life for health care ... and if he had given up in a year, or five years or 10 years, when many people wrote him off, none of the things that he accomplished would have been accomplished," said Maria Shriver, Kennedy's niece and California's First Lady. She spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press."
President Barack Obama, Kennedy's close friend Sen. Christopher Dodd and grandson Max Allen also offered reminders, and now the question is whether Kennedy's last wish will become his legacy.
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Three House of Representatives committees have approved legislation, and when Congress returns Sept. 8, leaders are expected to produce one bill to be put quickly before the full House.The Senate Health Committee, which Kennedy had chaired, has also written a bill, and six negotiators from the Senate Finance Committee, three from each party, have been discussing their own version.
But the turmoil facing health care reform was evident even as America mourned Kennedy. On Saturday, the same day as the funeral and burial, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, one of the committee negotiators, delivered a sobering counter-message as the Republican weekly radio address.
"People in Wyoming and across the country are anxious about what Washington has in mind," said Enzi, the health committee's ranking minority member.
He warned that "the Democrats are trying to rush a bill through the process that will actually make our nation's finances sicker without saving you money."
As Enzi's address played throughout the country, Kennedy loyalists pushed to tie his passing to his desire for health care.
The message had been driven home earlier in the day in both lofty and sentimental ways. Grandson Max Allen, one of 10 Kennedy nieces, nephews and grandchildren to briefly quote from his words, told Kennedy's Boston funeral mass: "For what my grandpa called the cause of his life, as he said so often, in every part of this land, that every American will have decent quality health care as a fundamental right, and not a privilege. We pray to the Lord." The audience responded, as they did after each child spoke, "Lord, hear our prayer."
Obama picked up the theme in his eulogy, saying: "We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers' rights or civil rights."
Whether any of this will matter when Congress returns is uncertain.
A vote for health care change could somehow be seen as a vote for the legacy of the Kennedys and all they stood for, analysts said, but it's not clear that anyone, not even Obama, can effectively harness that kind of sentiment.
At a Friday memorial service in Boston, Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, recalled how, in the last year of his life, Kennedy, who died Tuesday night at age 77, spoke about health care.
"He spoke of the great fight of his life, ensuring that every American, regardless of their economic status, be granted the right to decent health care in our country. We're all so deeply saddened that he did not live to see that battle won," Dodd said.
One big problem: The American people are signaling they're not sold on a massive overhaul, or for that matter on Kennedy as its symbol. A July 31-August 3 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll of 1,136 people nationwide found 51 percent viewed the senator favorably.
And when an ABC News-Washington Post surveyed asked 1,001 people nationwide August 13-17 if they liked what they heard about proposed health care changes in Congress and the White House, voters were divided.
Sunday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Kennedy's close friend and now the state's senior senator, spoke on ABC's "This Week" about what Kennedy would have done.
"He would not say 'no' to anything, because we have to reduce the cost. We have to make these changes," Kerry said. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a longtime Kennedy friend who worked with him on major legislation, added if Kennedy were engaged now, "I have no doubt" he would affect some compromise.
Shriver had hope. "Perhaps his passing will reinvigorate people to get it done, and he gave his life to that," she said in her "Meet the Press" remarks recorded Friday.
Dodd, asked about those comments, said the legacy is now up to Obama and congressional leaders.
"I think the president has got to decide, in a sense ... and to step up and really frame this again for us," Dodd said.
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