In this holiday season, there are lots of people in Washington thinking about Senator Kennedy -- not just because of the legendary Christmas parties featuring the Senator's hilarious performances as Fawn Hall, Elvis, Batman, and the Beast (with Vicki as the Beauty, of course) to name a few - but because his passing has made the final stages of passing health care reform legislation so much more difficult. By virtue of his many decades fighting on behalf of liberal causes, the Senator had the unique ability to compromise with his moderate and conservative colleagues and to persuade his liberal allies that the compromise deserved their support.
Here's but one of many examples: In the early 1990s, there was a bitter fight over civil rights legislation to overrule a series of Supreme Court decisions and extend protections for women who had been the victims of harassment on the job. President George H.W. Bush had labeled the measure a "quota bill" and vetoed it in 1990. Senator Kennedy (and Senator Jack Danforth (R-Mo)) tried again in 1991, and eventually forced the Bush Administration to the bargaining table. In a late-night session in Senator Bob Dole's office, Kennedy and Danforth negotiated a few modest compromises with Dole and then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu in exchange for President Bush's grudging support.
As soon as the final compromise was agreed to, Senator Kennedy got on the phone late in the evening -- to Senate colleagues, the House Democratic leadership, and key civil rights leaders -- to explain the compromise and head off liberal opposition. The next morning, he met with civil rights leaders shortly after dawn and then walked to the House side of the Capitol and met with civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus to personally take them through the compromise and secure their support. Despite some grumbling among more liberal members, he succeeded, securing key civil rights protections that remain in place to this day.
Today, there is a revolt brewing on the Democratic Left to the impending compromise on health care legislation, a compromise compelled by the Senate's rules and the differing politics of Red and Blue State Democrats. In Senator Kennedy's absence, there is no one with his credibility, experience, and stature to make the last compromise and persuade his liberal allies not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
That's one reason why I imagine that his former colleagues in the Senate, and one former Senate colleague now living in the White House, are lamenting Senator Kennedy's absence yet again.