As the tributes to Ted Kennedy continue to pour forth, eulogists from all points of the political compass stress a common theme: The career of the senior senator from Massachusetts was defined as much as anything by his unmatched ability to forge consensus on controversial issues. Many have suggested that, had Kennedy not been sidelined for months by the cancer that killed him this week, real progress might already have been made on health-care reform legislation, perhaps even passage.

As the tributes to Ted Kennedy continue to pour forth, eulogists from all points of the political compass stress a common theme: The career of the senior senator from Massachusetts was defined as much as anything by his unmatched ability to forge consensus on controversial issues. Many have suggested that, had Kennedy not been sidelined for months by the cancer that killed him this week, real progress might already have been made on health-care reform legislation, perhaps even passage.

It should go without saying that the best way to memorialize the man would be to accomplish what he called "the cause of my life" — and to do it without resorting to a heavy-handed force play by majority Democrats. But in the poisonous atmosphere that has developed over the summer, that goal seems further away than ever.

Republicans, smarting over their loss of the White House and Congress last year, apparently have decided that defeating President Obama's reform agenda is their ticket back to power. They clearly intend to use any means necessary to scuttle health-care reform so they can declare a political victory and brand congressional Democrats as failures heading toward the mid-term election next fall.

Backers of universal coverage and the "public option" are increasingly calling on the Democrats to fight back by using their majority power to ram through a reform package that is anathema to conservatives and their supporters among the American public. Whether that strategy would succeed is far from certain, and even if it did, it could prompt a backlash from voters who felt trampled upon.

Neither path will serve the interests of the nation as a whole.

If Democrats and Republicans can agree on nothing else, they should recognize that the worst possible outcome of this battle is to leave the health-care system unchanged.

Too many Americans are without health coverage. Too many of those who have coverage pay too much for it. Employers, whose survival is vital to the economic recovery that may even now be under way, must pay ever larger premiums to insure their workers. Their only option, if they wish to stay in business, is to reduce the quality of that coverage or ask their employees to pay an increasing share, or both.

Those without insurance must rely on costly emergency care, and the hospitals that must by law provide it pass on those costs to insurers, further driving up premiums for everyone.

Fixing this broken system will require legislation that can pass both houses of Congress. As usual, the Senate is the key, because the Democrats' control is razor-thin and because the upper chamber's rules require 60 votes. Also, the leading health-care reform bill in the House has become politically radioactive.

The Senate was Ted Kennedy's sailing ground. No one was more adept at navigating its waters without foundering on the reefs and sand bars that lie in wait for the unwary.

His Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle who have sung his praises this week must now pick up where he left off, put partisan interests aside, and work together for the greater good.