On the Cusp of Historic Majority, Senate Democrats Miss '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.

Kennedy's aides say that he has spent the past seven months deeply involved in the health-care talks, which are being conducted jointly by his panel and the Finance Committee, whether he's in Florida, his home in Georgetown or on Cape Cod. Last Tuesday, Obama told reporters he had spoken to Kennedy that morning about health-care legislation, declaring him "gung-ho, ready to go. He had a whole range of ideas."

When the committee takes up the health-care debate, however, it will most likely be Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate, who wields the gavel at hearings to craft the landmark legislation. Kennedy will probably remain on Cape Cod, traveling to Boston to continue his chemotherapy treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Guaranteeing that all Americans have access to affordable and quality health care is the cause of his life. He's been a leader on this issue for 40 years, and he continues to lead. That doesn't depend on location," said Anthony Coley, Kennedy's spokesman.

While Byrd's health has declined steadily over the past decade, Kennedy's illness came more quickly. On May 17, 2008, Kennedy suffered a seizure at his family's Hyannis Port compound on Cape Cod, caused by a malignant glioma, an aggressive form of brain tumor. Life expectancy for those suffering mild to moderate malignant gliomas is three to five years, with more severe tumors dropping that average to about a year.

Initially, Kennedy hoped to resume near full-time duties in January, and bore the bitter cold to watch Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration. He suffered a seizure afterward during a luncheon in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

Despite their deep respect for one another, Kennedy and Byrd initially hailed from competing camps of the Democratic caucus. Byrd supported Lyndon B. Johnson over Kennedy's brother, John, for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.

Byrd, allied with a bloc of conservative Southern Democrats, ousted the more liberal Kennedy in 1971 as Democratic whip in a historic leadership race that changed the trajectory of both careers. Byrd became majority leader in 1977 and developed into the foremost authority on parliamentary rules, while Kennedy turned his sights to committee work.

"I learned a long time ago that if you don't know how to lose, you don't deserve to win," Kennedy said after his defeat to Byrd, dedicating himself to the cause that still drives him today, national health insurance.

The two share personal backgrounds littered with controversy. Byrd, a former leader of West Virginia's Ku Klux Klan, repeatedly apologized later in life for his involvement with the racist group.

In July 1969, Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, adjacent to Martha's Vineyard, killing his female passenger and leading to charges of leaving the scene of an accident.

Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian, said the Chappaquiddick incident was an undercurrent in Byrd's upset defeat of Kennedy two years later, with fellow Democrats concerned about Kennedy's attention to floor duties during the resulting scandal.

But the onetime rivals grew to become close allies over decades of service, eventually becoming the staunchest opponents of the Bush administration's foreign policy earlier this decade.

A release from Byrd's office yesterday updating his condition singled out a get-well wish the ailing Kennedy had sent his colleague.

"Banish the germs and hurry back," Kennedy wrote to Byrd. "West Virginia needs you, the Senate needs you, the nation needs you, and so do I."

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