Player of the Week: Edward Kennedy
Capitol Briefing must admit that on some Fridays, when the sun is shining and the weekend beckons, he has trouble figuring out whom he should select as Player of the Week. Not so today.
On Wednesday, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) made what was widely hailed as a "dramatic" return to the Senate (watch it here) in the midst of intensive cancer treatments in order to cast what proved to be the decisive vote in favor of legislation to prevent a cut in payments to doctors under Medicare.
Kennedy's decision to show up for the vote had been a closely-guarded secret. Not only did he ensure a Democratic victory on a key legislative priority, but also prompted a massive standing ovation and brought forth accolades for his courage from both sides of the aisle. Having been present at the creation of Medicare in 1965, it was only fitting that the ailing master legislator would do whatever it took to make a key vote on the issue 43 years later.
But how many more such "Kennedy moments" will we have, whether from him or other senators of his vintage? Not only is Kennedy's long-term future in the Senate in doubt, but several more of the chamber's longest-serving and most able legislators are either leaving or in danger of being forced to leave office.
Take a look at the five most-senior Senators, along with the dates they joined the chamber, courtesy of Roll Call:
1. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Jan. 7, 1959
2. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Nov. 7, 1962
3. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Jan. 9, 1963
4. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Dec. 24, 1968
5. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Jan. 3, 1973
Byrd, the longest-serving Senator in history, is 90 and in poor health. He is the undisputed master of Senate rules and procedure but has faced questions this year about whether he is fit to continue as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Kennedy, the third-longest serving Senator in history, has a malignant brain tumor and his ability to return to the Senate full-time is not clear. Stevens is a legend in Alaska and Washington for his ability bring home federal benefits, but he also faces a difficult reelection fight amid a federal investigation of corruption in The Last Frontier. And Domenici is retiring, as he grapples with a degenerative brain disease.
Of those five Senators, only Inouye faces no immediate health or electoral threat, though he is 83. Beyond that upper echelon of seniority, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), known for his defense expertise and his willingness to cross the aisle on key issues, is also retiring. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was also known for his willingness to cut a deal, resigned last year to become a lobbyist.
This isn't so much about "the age issue" in the Senate and how older lawmakers eventually have to leave the chamber. It's about a certain breed of legislator, and whether we're seeing more and more of them disappear, never to return.
The Senate is already becoming a more partisan and fractious chamber, even with many of those older lawmakers still around for now. Just this week, a housing compromise bill that had been worked out between veteran Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.) took days to move through the chamber because of the separate objections of Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). At times this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.Nev.) appeared exhausted and frustrated by the effort required to move even a bill with bipartisan consensus through the chamber.
Many of the Senators who are either leaving or at risk of leaving soon have long since proven themselves willing to craft bipartisan deals and support the chamber's moving forward on important, even if imperfect, legislation. Kennedy, who is as liberal a Senator as you will find, has nonetheless always known when to cut a deal.
When the institutional memory and experience of Senators such as Kennedy, Byrd, Domenici, Stevens and Warner is gone, what will replace it? How many of the 10 Senators elected in 2006, or the unknown number of freshmen who will begin service next January, will stay in the chamber for three or four decades? Kennedy's return to the chamber this week certainly was dramatic, but the breed of legislator that he represents may never return.
July 11, 2008; 4:35 PM ET
Categories: Player of the Week , Senate
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