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An aging Senate contends with time and illness

Edward M. Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Arlen Specter — fighters and history-makers all. Their battles with age and illness are the hallmarks of the nation's oldest-ever Senate and reminders of the fragility of power.
Aging Senate
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., presides over the committee's hearing on markup of the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill on May 15.Lauren Victoria Burke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Edward M. Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Arlen Specter — fighters and history-makers all. Their battles with age and illness are the hallmarks of the nation's oldest-ever Senate and reminders of the fragility of power.

The over-70 crowd is a caucus all its own, fond of self-deprecating humor and kindnesses that cross party lines. Ninety is the new 80, Byrd quipped recently.

There is no more forgiving place to age, as Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina could attest. After retiring as the longest-serving senator in history, Thurmond died in 2003 at 100 years old.

Still, news of the 76-year-old Kennedy's malignant brain tumor Tuesday was a heartbreaker even for this wizened group, which has seen spouses and friends fall before them.

Byrd, 90, wept as he prayed for "my dear, dear, dear friend, Ted Kennedy."

"Keep Ted here for us and for America," Byrd said from his wheelchair in only the second floor speech he's given since a fall at his home in February.

"Ted, Ted, my dear friend, I love you and I miss you," Byrd said.

His wife, Erma, who died in 2006, "would want to say, 'Thank God for you, Ted, thank God for you.'" The nine-term senator, now the longest-serving in U.S. history, wiped tears from his eyes.

Specter, 78, is balding from treatments for his second bout with cancer. Specter himself once received a diagnosis of brain cancer — and a grim prediction of six weeks to live. Despite his experience with the deadly disease, he told reporters that hearing the news about Kennedy was "just overwhelming."

The fifth-term Pennsylvania Republican has said many times that staying on the job through treatment has been key to his survival.

"If tenacity and willpower can do it, Ted Kennedy will be a survivor," Specter said.

Aides and senators of both parties widely said the news took the wind out of the pace of Senate business as members returned for the last week of work before their Memorial Day recess.

"I am so deeply saddened I have lost the words," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., 81.

Average age of Senate at all-time high
Senators do not often find it hard to talk. Words are the currency they use to advance or kill legislation. This deliberate speed, born of experience, scholarship and age, was part of the plan set out by the nation's founders, according to Betty Koed, assistant Senate historian.

The constitutional framers set the minimum age requirement for the Senate at 30 and for the House at 25. In the late 18th century, that was late middle age. The average life expectancy even a century later was around 40 years. Back then, second-term senators were considered veterans and Senate membership was known to completely turn over every 12 years.

Since the first session of Congress, in 1789, the average age of members of the Senate has risen from 47 to an all-time high today of 61.8, according to Senate records.

Longer lifespans pose another challenge for senators: handling the cold calculation of lobbyists and younger lawmakers and counting seats as if their elders already have departed.

Unseemly as it may be, political types were taking note of how Kennedy's illness might affect the Democrats' drive to win enough new seats in the November elections to approach 60 votes in the Senate. The closer Democrats get to that filibuster-proof majority, the more control they have over what policy the new president can — and cannot — push into law.

Currently, the Senate is split 49-49 between Democrats and Republicans, with two independents who caucus with Democrats. Every seat is crucial.

Older senators have favored ways of dealing with the issues of age, health and speculation over their futures.

Fighting questions of age with humor
Specter stays busy with squash and a full Senate schedule. Kennedy watched baseball, ate takeout and cracked jokes from his hospital bed in Massachusetts. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who at 71 is running for president and has had his own bouts with illness, took the stage on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" just to poke fun at his own seniority.

"I ask you, what should we be looking for in our next president?" McCain joked. "Certainly, someone who is very, very, very old."

Byrd is fond of fighting rumors just by showing up or issuing a tart rejoinder.

Last year, when he ceded some duties of his Appropriations Committee chairmanship to others, he noted: "I am sure that my younger colleagues ... appreciate the opportunity to play a larger role."

This year, Byrd struck back against lobbyists and even some younger colleagues planning for the post-Byrd era — including some jockeying outright for his chairmanship — by appearing on the Senate floor for much of a daylong vote-o-rama.

A reporter asked Byrd what he had to say to those suggesting that he's not up to chairing the powerful panel.

His reply: "Shut up!"