By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
In a recent speech to a Mississippi civic group, Sen. Trent Lott brought up Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's role on important domestic legislation, including Kennedy's latest push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
When Lott was finished, a man in the audience came up to him and said: "You did real good. But that part about Kennedy -- don't say that no more."
"He is the number one boogeyman for conservative Republicans," Lott said later of the longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts. But, Lott added, "he is a good legislator, and you can't take that away from him."
That Lott would praise a liberal icon of the Democratic Party might seem odd. But Kennedy's work on the immigration bill is, in fact, the third time he has thrown himself behind a major initiative of President Bush's. Kennedy gave crucial support to two of the president's key first-term domestic achievements, the No Child Left Behind education law and a Medicare prescription drug bill. That he helped Republicans burnish their record on such trademark Democratic issues as education and health care mystified some in both parties. But his alliance with Bush on immigration is simply a matter of necessity.
"Senator Kennedy's name has been on every major immigration reform bill since 1965, and he has always teamed up with Republicans," said Cecilia Muñoz, senior vice president of policy for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. "The fact that President Bush is pro-reform . . . creates the political opportunity."
In an interview, Kennedy said that the possibility of providing millions of illegal immigrants with a road to legal status was too important to ignore. "It's a defining issue about the kind of country we are," he said. "It's a moral issue. It's how we treat people."
Bush and Kennedy have discussed immigration issues for years, but when they met in January at a White House event marking the fifth anniversary of No Child Left Behind, it seemed that the time was right for both men. "He spoke about this issue knowledgeably," Kennedy said. "And he was willing to take some political hits on this. That caught my eye."
Kennedy, now in his 75th year and his 45th in the Senate, is the third-longest-serving senator in history -- the only current senator who beats his record is fellow Democrat Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Kennedy has served on education panels since he entered the Senate, and today he chairs its committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. In 2001, Kennedy was the lead Senate Democrat behind No Child Left Behind because he said it promised the measurable achievement for the poor that he had envisioned for years. He stressed to Bush his desire that the homeless, immigrants and other traditionally weak performers get special assistance. But, Kennedy says, program budgets have since shortchanged those students, leaving him deeply disappointed.
"With the program now up for renewal, he said, "I want to get a reauthorization, but we want to work with the administration and we want a give and take."
In 2002, Kennedy sponsored a bipartisan Medicare drug bill, a precursor to one he backed the next year. Then Republicans shut him out of the conference to write a final bill, while AARP, which had not split with the senator before, switched sides. The legislation that emerged favored the health-care industry more than seniors, in the view of Kennedy and many other Democrats.
"We went in with our eyes wide open, and we passed a very good prescription drug bill with 76 votes in the Senate," he said. "Virtually overnight, we were isolated."
Bush touted both domestic programs in his reelection campaign, while Kennedy characterized the president's record this way in a 2004 speech: "Iraq, jobs, Medicare, schools, issue after issue -- mislead, deceive, make up the needed facts, smear the character of any critics. Again and again we see this cynical, despicable strategy playing out."
Despite the harsh rhetoric, Kennedy says he and Bush have "a good professional relationship." He rejects any idea that he might not have entertained another alliance with Bush without a Democratic majority in Congress.
"I'm not trying to be cute with anybody about this. I want to get things done [on] challenging public policy issues that affect real people," he said, pointing out his cooperation with Republicans on issues including overhauling the Food and Drug Administration to hate-crimes legislation. Sometimes, he said, "all sides can win." The immigration bill is modeled, at least in part, on one that Kennedy and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote and moved through the Senate last year, although it died in the House. All sides credit Kennedy for keeping a dozen senators and administration officials at the table until they reached an agreement.
"He was very determined," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), reminding lawmakers that immigration is "what we all harken back to." Last week, Kennedy dominated the Senate floor, blocking amendments sponsored by fellow Democrats in the name of preserving the deal.
Early on, some Republicans wondered whether his commitment was sincere. But over time, said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), "you really saw his skills at just getting people together and banging out an agreement."
The bill -- called by some critics the "Kennedy-Bush Amnesty Program" -- may yet fail. But Kennedy remains hopeful.
"If people want to make progress," he said, "you can find common ground."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.