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Without Kennedy, no Senate dealmaker

In an era of bitter partisan division, Sen. Edward Kennedy's death silenced a singular voice of bipartisanship and compromise at a time when his colleagues are struggling over a health care overhaul.
Image: Senator Edward Kennedy
Sen. Kennedy questions Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius during her confirmation hearing to be secretary of health and human Services in March.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In an era of bitter partisan division, Sen. Edward Kennedy's death silenced a singular voice of bipartisanship and compromise at a time when his colleagues are struggling against angry constituents and with each other over an elusive plan to overhaul the U.S. health care system.

Congress could use Kennedy's influence now, as both houses churn through the corrosive health care debate. Some lawmakers said the current stalemate is the result of Kennedy's absence from the debate for the last few crucial months.

It is unclear whether the post-Kennedy Senate includes anyone with enough credibility among ideological opposites, dealmaking skills or knowledge to strike a quick compromise.

"There is nobody else like him," said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, who alternated with Kennedy over the years as chairman and ranking minority 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," Sen. Orrin Hatch, another veteran Republican, said. "If he finally agreed, the whole base would come along even if they didn't like it."

Kennedy lost his toughest fight Tuesday to brain cancer at 77. But he won countless others by embodying an increasingly rare type of bipartisanship. It was perceived not as a threat to ideology or money-raising 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. "He didn't try to destroy you. That's what's happening in Washington now. It's gotten so mean." Lott is no longer in the Senate.

Liberal icon
Over 47 years in the Senate, Kennedy evolved into an institution himself, equal parts liberal icon and effective dealmaker who combined those skills to forge agreement on some of the most sweeping and contentious social reforms of his time.

Kennedy worked out an agreement with conservative President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act, which brought about a vast increase in federal influence in the nation's schools. He regularly worked with Hatch, notably on a federally funded program for people with HIV/AIDS, health insurance for lower-income children and tax breaks to encourage the development of medicine for rare diseases.

When he compromised, Kennedy's base may have grumbled but did not question his fidelity to liberal principles. Republicans trusted him to be straight with them in tough negotiations and not make it personal. No one questioned his knowledge of Senate procedure, rivaled only by that of Vice President Joe Biden and West Virginia's Sen. Robert C. Byrd, neither of whom is playing a big role in Senate business.

So without Kennedy, the 99-member chamber lacks anyone playing precisely his role: to dole 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 stalling tactics, to 59, including two independents.

No one is irreplaceable in the Senate, a popular saying goes. But Sen. John McCain, a Republican, called Kennedy just that in a statement Wednesday. McCain, last year his party's presidential nominee, was even clearer during 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 in a weekend television talk show.

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

Democrats widely 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 reform specifically. There was early talk 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."

Biden, in a tearful salute to his friend, said Kennedy raised the level of discourse and senatorial behavior and in the course of rising from dark chapters of his life embodied the most selfless human qualities.

"It was never about him...he never was petty," Biden told reporters, recalling how Kennedy stood by him when Biden's wife and child were killed in a car accident.

"I just hope we remember how he treated other people and how he made other people look at themselves and look at one another," Biden said. "That will be the truly fundamental, unifying legacy of Teddy Kennedy's life, if that happens, and it will for a while at least in the Senate."