WASHINGTON BUREAU — The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy could affect the leadership of the Senate Banking Committee as well as of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who is now chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has been a leading candidate to succeed Kennedy, D-Mass., as HELP chairman.

If Dodd takes over at the HELP Committee, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., a strong advocate for an optional federal charter for insurers, could become the new chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

Insurance industry groups have been spending the day expressing sorrow at Kennedy’s passing.

“Sen. Edward Kennedy was America’s health care champion,” said Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington. “His contribution to health care policy is unmatched. AHIP and its members join the entire health care community in extending our thoughts and prayers to the Kennedy family.”

The National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, Falls Church, Va., and its health insurance affiliate, AHIA-NAIFA Health and Employee Benefits, also paused to recognize Kennedy’s legacy.

“The Nation and Congress have lost a great leader,” NAIFA and AHIA said. “Among many issues he championed, Senator Kennedy led the effort for decades to improve access to quality health care for all Americans.”

Members of NAIFA and AHIA “agree on the overall goal of improving access to and the affordability of health insurance,” the groups said. “As a statesman, Senator Kennedy was brilliant at finding consensus, and we expect the Congress will honor his legacy by proceeding in a bipartisan effort to enact his signature issue – health care reform.”

Janet Trautwein, executive vice president of the National Association of Health Underwriter, Arlington, Va., said in an interview that Kennedy brought to the table the ability to make compromises and get other Democrats to go along with the compromises.

“They may not have liked it, but they’d do it,” Trautwein said.

NAHU’s concern is that “the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy may encourage some to act quickly in a very partisan fashion,” Trautwein said.

But Kennedy’s true legacy “was his ability to bring stakeholders together and reach across the aisle in a very bipartisan fashion,” Trautwein said.

NAHU believes that lawmakers see public approval for the current health proposals dwindling, and that Congress will reevaluate the proposals, Trautwein said.

Analysts at Washington Analysis, Washington, a service that advises brokerages and hedge funds, said they doubt Kennedy’s death will increase the likelihood of passage of a “public option” mandate.

“The polls, town hall outcry, yesterday’s 10-year deficit numbers, and recent statements argue for a more moderate direction or a more modest direction,” the analysts write.

Congress still could try to increase Medicare payments to doctors, take Medicare and Medicaid cost containment “baby steps,” and expand Medicaid, the analysts write.

“Such a Plan B amounts to basically doing little overhaul, but the Democrats are likely to advertise such a bill as the ‘next installment of healthcare reform,’” the analysts write.

Similarly, officials at the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, Alexandria, Va., are predicting that some form of health reform bill will pass in Congress and be signed into law.

Meanwhile, Senate committee succession arrangements may still be in flux.

Johnson is still battling the effects of a brain hemorrhage he suffered in December 2006. If he decides not to become chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., could take over.

Dodd said today that he hadn’t given the HELP chairmanship a “second’s worth of thought” and would consult with Democratic leaders about the next steps to take.

But Dodd said that he intends to continue to be deeply involved in the health care debate, and that Kennedy’s staff will “continue to play a very, very important role.”