In an era of bitter political division, Sen. Edward Kennedy's death silenced a singular voice of bipartisanship at a time when colleagues are struggling with angry constituents and each other over an elusive plan to overhaul the nation's health-care system.
WASHINGTON - In an era of bitter political division, Sen. Edward Kennedy's death silenced a singular voice of bipartisanship at a time when colleagues are struggling with angry constituents and each other over an elusive plan to overhaul the nation's health-care system.
Some lawmakers had said Tuesday that the current stalemate is the result of Mr. Kennedy's absence for the past few crucial months.
Some hope to rescue the embattled legislation as his legacy.
It's not clear that 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 over the years alternated with Mr. Kennedy 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," Mr. Gregg said.
"Teddy was the only Democrat who could move their whole base," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said. "If he finally agreed, the whole base would come along even if they didn't like it."
On Tuesday night, Mr. Kennedy lost the fight with brain cancer that he couldn't win.
But he won countless others by embodying an increasingly rare type of bipartisanship - the kind perceived not as a threat to ideology or fund-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," former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said. "He didn't try to destroy you. That's what's happening in Washington now. It's gotten so mean."
Over 47 years in the Senate, Mr. Kennedy evolved into an institution himself, equal parts liberal inspiration and dealmaker who combined those skills to forge agreement on some of the most sweeping and controversial social legislation of his time.
Mr. Kennedy worked out an agreement with President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act.
He regularly worked with Mr. 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.
When he compromised, Mr. 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.
And no one questioned his knowledge of Senate procedure, rivaling even that of West Virginia's Robert Byrd, who no longer plays a big role in Senate business.
Without Mr. Kennedy, the 99-member chamber lacks anyone playing precisely his role doling out the goodwill 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.
According to a popular saying, no one is irreplaceable in the Senate.
But John McCain (R., Ariz.) called Mr. Kennedy just that yesterday.
Mr. McCain, the GOP presidential nominee last year, 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," Mr. McCain said on ABC's This Week. "It's huge that he's absent."
He added that if Mr. Kennedy had been engaged in the debate in June, when he handed his committee chairmanship duties to Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.), "I think the health-care reform might be in a very different place today."
Democrats mourned Mr. Kennedy's passing on personal and political grounds and urged their colleagues to adopt Mr. Kennedy's big-picture view of the world generally and health care specifically.
There was talk of honoring Mr. 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 Mr. Dodd, Mr. Kennedy's close friend who has taken a lead role on health-care negotiations.
"We all share the same principles. How you get there is complicated, but that's what Senator Kennedy dedicated his life to," Mr. 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."
Vice President Joe Biden, in a tearful salute to his friend, said Mr. Kennedy raised the level of discourse and senatorial behavior and in the course of rising from dark chapters of his own life embodied the most selfless human qualities.
"It was never about him he never was petty," Mr. Biden said, recalling how Mr. Kennedy stood by him when the former senator'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," Mr. Biden added. "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."
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