On the Cusp of a Historic Majority, Senate Democrats Are Missing Two ‘Pillars'

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The weeks ahead were supposed to mark the moment in which President Obama used a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority to push some of the most ambitious items on his agenda through the Senate, brushing aside GOP opposition as little more than a distraction.

But instead, even with the Minnesota Supreme Court on the verge of settling that state's seemingly endless disputed Senate race, which would finally provide a 100th senator, the chamber's leaders are having to contend with the prolonged absence of two of the most senior and famed members as key summer votes approach.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 91, has been ensconced in an undisclosed hospital since May 15, initially for a minor infection, but then for a more serious staph infection. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), 77, who was diagnosed with brain cancer a year ago, did not return to the Senate last week despite proclamations from colleagues just last month that he would be back in time to lead this summer's health-care debate.

It's been 15 months since all 100 senators have come to the floor of the chamber for a vote. Early last year, that was because the presidential campaign stole the attention of Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other senators seeking the White House. Neither Byrd's nor Kennedy's office has said when they will return, and yesterday Byrd's office announced that he would not be resuming his duties this week.

Even Democratic leaders sometimes do not have accurate information about the senators' health. On May 19, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that Kennedy would return early this month, and that Byrd would be released from the hospital that day.

"They're like pillars. They stand for history. They're missed every day," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Democrats are on the cusp of a historic achievement. If the Minnesota court decides in favor of Democrat Al Franken, they will be on the verge of having a caucus of 60 senators for the first time since 1978 -- when Byrd was majority leader and Kennedy was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But they can only count on Kennedy's vote on the most critical issues, such as the Senate's initial passage of Obama's stimulus plan on Feb. 10. He has voted just 11 times in the more than 280 roll calls since his cancer diagnosis, most recently on April 27. Byrd has not voted since falling ill last month.

To their Democratic colleagues, they have been quite simply the heart and soul of the Senate: Kennedy, the fiery patriarch of America's leading political dynasty; Byrd, the devoted institutionalist who literally wrote the book on the chamber's obscure rules and procedures. With combined service of more than 96 years and nearly 34,000 votes between them, Kennedy and Byrd have witnessed the past half-century of political battles on Capitol Hill.

The two command such respect on their side of the aisle that any talk of them retiring to make way for younger, healthier successors is considered taboo, and even Republicans who have engaged in legislative jousting with Byrd and Kennedy for decades are hesitant to offer criticism.

"It's hard to imagine a Senate without them," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who spent the summer of 1964 as a Senate intern. "Ted was already here. So was Byrd. And they're still here," McConnell, 67, said last week.

Senate Democrats have been forced to develop a kind of emotional detachment in taking up the legislative causes that Byrd, the longest-serving U.S. senator in history, and Kennedy, the third-longest-serving, have waited years to champion themselves.

After the November elections, Byrd surrendered the chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee, leaving him on the sidelines during the current fight over a war spending bill that has focused debate on closing the prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a personal cause of his. Kennedy, who remains chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has had his responsibilities divided among four Democrats on the panel.

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