Lawmakers say Ted Kennedy's death leaves Senate void

Thursday, August 27, 2009
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., takes part in a Capitol Hill news conference June 21, 2006, to discuss the minimum wage debate. Kennedy died Tuesday night after a yearlong battle with a brain tumor. (Associated Press file)

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's death silenced a voice of bipartisanship at a time when colleagues are working with constituents and each other over a plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Some lawmakers said Tuesday the current stalemate is the result of Kennedy's absence for the past few months. Some hope to rescue the embattled legislation as his legacy.

Kennedy, 77, died Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod after a yearlong struggle with brain cancer.

It's not clear whether the post-Kennedy Senate includes anyone with the credibility among ideological opponents, the dealmaking skills or the inside knowledge to strike a quick agreement.

"There is nobody else like him," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who alternated with Kennedy over the years as chairman and ranking minority-party member of the health committee. "If he had been physically up to it and been engaged on this, we probably would have an agreement by now."

"Teddy was the only Democrat who could move their whole base," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "If he finally agreed, the whole base would come along even if they didn't like it."

First elected to the Senate in 1962, Kennedy had won battles by embodying a type of bipartisanship perceived not as a threat to ideology or fundraising prowess, but as a way of getting something done, however imperfect.

"Bipartisanship takes a person that has leadership and personal charm, quite frankly, and a desire to get a result," said former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "He didn't try to destroy you. That's what's happening in Washington now. It's gotten so mean."

Kennedy worked out an agreement with President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act. He regularly worked with Hatch, notably on a federally funded program for those with HIV/AIDS, health insurance for lower-income children and tax breaks to encourage the development of medicines for rare diseases.

Making the wheels spin

Without Kennedy, the 99-member chamber lacks anyone playing precisely his role of doling out the good will and procedural expertise necessary to make the Senate wheels spin through controversial legislation. The Democratic caucus falls from an effective supermajority of 60, enough to kill Republican filibusters, to 59, including two independents.

John McCain, R-Ariz., called Kennedy irreplaceable in a statement Wednesday. McCain, last year the GOP presidential nominee, was even clearer over the weekend.

"He had a way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations," McCain said on ABC's "This Week."

"It's huge that he's absent," McCain added. If Kennedy had been engaged in the debate past June, when he handed his committee chairmanship duties to Chris Dodd, D-Conn., "I think the health care reform might be in a very different place today."

Democrats mourned Kennedy's passing on personal and political grounds and urged their colleagues to adopt Kennedy's big-picture view of the world generally and health care specifically. There was talk Wednesday of honoring Kennedy within the Capitol, possibly by posting his portrait in the Senate Reception Room with the likenesses of other senators hailed for their bipartisan accomplishments.

"My hope is that this will maybe cause people to take a breath, step back and start talking with each other again in more civil tones about what needs to be done, because that's what Teddy would do," said Dodd, Kennedy's close friend who has taken a lead role on health care negotiations and is himself battling prostate cancer.

"We all share the same principles. How you get there is complicated, but that's what Senator Kennedy dedicated his life to," Dodd added. "In his memory, I will do everything I can as long as I can stand in the United States Senate to help us achieve that goal."

Diagnosed last year

Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.

He made a surprise return to the Capitol last summer to cast a vote for the Democrats on Medicare. He also appeared at last summer's Democratic National Convention, where he spoke of his own illness and said health care was the cause of his life. He was there again in January to see his former Senate colleague sworn in as president but suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.

Kennedy will be buried Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery after a funeral Mass in Boston. Before that, he is to lie in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Also buried at Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington, are two Kennedy brothers, the president and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, as well as John Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline, their baby son, Patrick, who died after two days, and their stillborn child.

Under state law, Kennedy's successor will be chosen by special election. In his last known public act, the senator urged Massachusetts state legislators to give Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick the power to name an interim replacement. But that appears unlikely, even though Patrick said Wednesday he would sign such a bill if it reached his desk.

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