Post Politics: Congress After Kennedy, Possible Replacements, More

Paul Kane
Paul Kane
Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009; 11:00 AM

Post congressional reporter Paul Kane took your questions about how the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy will impact the Senate and health-care legislation, his possible replacements, and the latest political news.


Paul Kane: It's September 1995, I'm brand new to DC working at this white-collar sweatshop known as States News Service. I'm racing to the Dirksen Senate Office Building to cover my first ever congressional hearing, this one before what was then known as the Labor committee, exploring a GOP proposal to slash billions of dollars from the federal student loan program. I'm late, it's hot, sweaty and I'm standing at the elevator when I realize, right next to me, is Edward M. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Ah, I think, I'm not late, they won't start until Teddy gets there. We get into the elevator -- Kennedy was so late, he didn't bother waiting for the senators-only elevator -- and I realize that the back flap on Kennedy's jacket is up. Hunched over from a debilitating back injury he suffered in a mid-1960s plane crash, Kennedy wasn't able to reach his arms around his neck to pat down the jacket. So he sat there in the elevator flapping away on his jacket, not able to get the damn thing down.

Should I help, I thought. Am I allowed to touch a Kennedy? I grew up in a household with busts of both Jack and Bobby. I can't touch a Kennedy. They're royalty.

So I let Kennedy walk out of the elevator looking silly, too afraid to help him. By the time Kennedy walks into the hearing his jacket is set -- clearly an aide helped set the flap right -- and he immediately tears into Republicans for trying to destroy the student loan program.

It was awesome. It was vintage. It was my first moment ever with Ted Kennedy.

On to the questions. - pk


Washington, D.C.: Now that congressional Democrats have lost their most stalwart leader, whom do you suppose will emerge from the shadows of Senator Kennedy? Assuming there is none, what does this mean for the future of the Party?

Paul Kane: Awesome question. The truth is, Kennedy came from a prior congressional life, really, a place and time where committee chairmen were dominant forces and controlled fiefdoms that made them power brokers. Now, power has been highly concentrated in the leadership offices, in both parties,on both ends of the Capitol.

Yes, the chairmen are still very powerful figures -- witness Max Baucus's negotiations over health care -- but ultimately leaders have a powerful hold on things. (Witness Harry Reid giving Baucus a Sept 15 deadline in order to conclude his health-care talks, or else he's pulling the bill from him.)

The bigger issue revolves around the ideological hero-role that Kennedy played. That's where his presence was most felt. He was the liberal warrior, but he was the guy who also could tell fellow liberals, OK guys, this is as good as we can do for now, let's take this deal and then immediately take up the fight to get more the next time.

Who is going to play that role?

A decade ago I would have said Paul Wellstone or Tom Harkin. Wellstone has died, and Harkin has gotten older, seems to have drifted from the battle. The person who could have easily taken that role?

Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Many people wanted Clinton, after losing to Obama, to return to the Senate the way Kennedy did in 1981 -- committed to the fight, committed to the cause. Instead, she still saw her career defined by the executive branch.

Who is that person now for the left?

It's probably Henry Waxman.


Columbus, Ohio: Could you explain why the late Sen. Kennedy, despite his long Senate tenure, never was senate majority leader?

Paul Kane: Excellent question. Kennedy was on the glide path to being majority leader -- until his bitter, bitter rival Bob Byrd knocked him out.

Yes, folks, Byrd and Kennedy were bitter rivals in their early days.

Kennedy took office in November 1962, after winning a special election to take the remaining 2 years of his brother Jack's Senate term. Byrd was already there, elected in 1958, but Byrd was firmly in the LBJ camp. Byrd, leading up to the famous 1960 West Virginia primary, vehemently opposed JFK's candidacy. Johnson wasn't even running in the W. Va. primary, but Byrd backed Humphrey as a way to try to dent JFK's momentum. (Kennedy eventually won West Virginia, following his historic address on Catholicism.)

So there was always a bitter taste between Byrd and Ted Kennedy. In 1969, Kennedy knocked out a southern Democrat in a race to be Democratic whip, putting him in the No. 2 position in leadership. This put him on track to one day succeed Mike Mansfield, who took over as majority leader after LBJ became veep.

But in January 1971, the southern bloc of senators -- fearing that Teddy was still interested in a presidential bid, and still smarting over his defeat of one of their own 2 years earlier -- they ran Byrd against Kennedy in the whip race. Byrd won, in part because of the aftermath of the 1969 Kennedy car crash on Chappiquidick.

That set Byrd on the path for leadership, sent Kennedy into his committee work. Kennedy exited the Democratic caucus that day, in January 1971, and he told reporters that he would commit himself to national health-care legislation.


New Orleans: "Am I allowed to touch a Kennedy? I grew up in a household with busts of both Jack and Bobby. I can't touch a Kennedy. They're royalty." Does anyone wonder why so many Americans think the MSM is in the tank for liberal Democrats? How can anyone read your writing without remembering this obvious bias?

Paul Kane: My bias is toward the institution. I've always admitted that in these chats. (If you're new to this chat, more often than not the readers accuse me of being some sorta flack for conservatives.)

Kennedy was an institution. Plain and simple. He was larger than life. Regardless of the feelings toward him as an institution, it didn't impact my coverage of his legislative proposals.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Paul - thanks for taking questions today. How does the president use Sen. Kennedy's death to help get his health- care plans moving without seeming exploitative? Seems like it's walking a fine line, and I wonder if and how he can do it.

Paul Kane: Frankly, I fall into the camp that doesn't think Kennedy's death will do much for the health-care debate. Health care is way, way, way too personal an issue for every lawmaker, they've all got 700,000 constituents -- in House districts anyway -- who have health-care issues.

So, they're not just going to roll over and agree to pass legislation because it's for Kennedy. Not gonna happen.

When Wellstone died in the plane crash in 2002, it took another 6 years before the legislation he trumpeted -- mental health parity in insurance -- was signed into law.

What Kennedy's death does do, however, is it takes the issue of town halls and people screaming at congressmen, it puts that on the back pages. It takes that off the cable TV outlets.

It calms the talk. Settles the tone.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Why will there be no Capitol Hill rotunda repose for Sen. Kennedy? Do you know if that was his request prior to his death?

Paul Kane: My understanding is that the funeral arrangements are a well mapped out Kennedy family plan. So I would have to assume that this is exactly what Kennedy wanted himself.

The funeral mass is being held in a Boston church where he reportedly prayed every day while his daughter Kara was battling cancer 17 or so years ago. So that's where he wants the service to take place.

This is a similar sort of arrangement that Jackie Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy had for their services, I'm told, with funerals held elsewhere and then internment at Arlington.


Las Cruces, NM: I appreciate the service Senator Kennedy gave to the country, however, as your opening anecdote suggests, you, like many members of the media have a fawning, hagiographic viewpoint of the Kennedy family.

Do you think it is healthy for journalists to perpetuate a view of a man, and a family, that minimizes flaws (trading votes for donations to a personal library, tragic alcohol abuse, cover-ups of crimes committed by both the Senator and members of his extended family, etc.) and overstates his accomplishments? For example, he was out-of-step with the country through most of his career and, while an effective Senator, failed to move the Senate or the country to the left?

Paul Kane: After work last night I went out to a restaurant by the White House with a half-dozen Republican aides. To a man each one of them said they were surprisingly pleased to see that the media coverage -- at least the print media side of this -- had portrayed Kennedy as a tragically flawed person. The phrase Shakespearean was uttered plenty on cable TV yesterday. I saw plenty of shots of the bridge his car went off in '69.

That side of Kennedy was explored plenty.

As far as his ultimate legislative legacy, his career spanned the idelogical arc. He entered the Senate when there were 60-some Democrats and liberalism was on the march. He spent the '80s and '90s and the early part of this decade in a largely defensive position.

His greatest disappointment is that, now that the Democrats finally have a majority with which his positions can be on the offense again, he wasn't here to enjoy that opportunity one last time.


Salinas, Calif.: "Who is that person now for the left? It's probably Henry Waxman."

Paul, that still leaves a huge void in the Senate.


Paul Kane: Waxman is the House point man on health-care and energy policy. He provided the most intense oversight of the Bush administration of anyone.

He's the guy for the left to took to these days, he's got nowhere near as much heft -- literally and figuratively --as Kennedy did. Crowds won't line the streets of LA to watch his casket go by when Waxman dies, the way they'll line the streets of Boston today.

But he's as good as the left has right now.

In the Senate? Watch Sherrod Brown of Ohio. He's a purist. He's really smart. He's young enough that he's got time to grow into the role.


Abingdon, Md.: Interesting comment about Clinton---has anyone ever left the Senate to take on some other role (for example, say Sec. of State) and then returned? Or is it immensely difficult to get back in once out (assuming you left while still popular)?

Paul Kane: Plenty of people have left the Senate and then returned. Humphrey is a great example, leaving in the mid-60s to become LBJ's veep, and then returning in the '70s.

But Clinton's issue is Gillibrand. If she wins a full term in 2010, she's really young and will be pretty ensconced in that seat. Schumer's not going anywhere for a while.

Frankly, Clinton didn't seem to really like the Senate much at all. I think she pretty much disliked her tenure there, and that's why she took State. So she won't be returning anytime soon.


Bethesda, Md.: With respect, what exactly made the Kennedys an "institution?" Their good looks? Their vast wealth? Family tragedies? I'm not certain that the Kennedy's actual accomplishments measured up to their reputation and fawning by the MSM.

Paul Kane: Every civil rights bill of the last 45 years had Kennedy's stamp on it. Every health-care bill of the last 30 years had his imprint on it. Every minimum wage bill of the last 30 years had his imprint on it.

Every Supreme Court nomination from 1965 until last month, Kennedy played a huge role in.

That's just the legislative record. The political side of Kennedy was huge. On the left and the right. As David Rogers of Politico noted in his obit, guys like Trent Lott actually ran their races as anti-Kennedy conservatives. it got them elected.

Also, among Democrats, people like John Kerry won presidential nominations in large part because of Kennedy's campaigning.

I respectfully disagree with your view.


Austin, Tex.: What the hell is wrong with Brad Lidge?

Paul Kane: Don't get me started, please, don't get me started.


Prescott, Ariz.: I got two void-fillers for the left: Russ Feingold and Al Franken.

Paul Kane: The problem with Feingold is that he's more of a procedural liberal than an ideolgoical warrior. He fights the good fights for liberals on issues like campaign finance, executive branch power, based largely on his belief of how the system should work procedurally.

But on pure ideological tests, Feingold has a way of doing things sometimes that aren't very pure. He happily supported John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general, because he believed that a president has the procedural right to choose his cabinet.


Arlington, Va.: How will social issues like gay marriage and abortion affect who ultimately wins the special election to replace Sen. Kennedy? Any chance Mitt Romney could run and win in Mass.?

Paul Kane: Mitt Romney is running for president in 2012. So running for Senate in 2010 does nothing to help him. Besides, he'd have to run to the left to try to get elected in Mass., which would hurt him with conservative primary voters in Iowa, NH and SC.


Charles Town, W.V.: I cannot see HRC retiring. Do you? She could still be elected President, or could easily return to the Senate. What's stopping her?

Paul Kane: I'm telling you, she's no interest in the Senate. I don't know what she'll do next, but it ain't gonna be the Senate. Say she serves a full term as secretary of state, then leaves in 2013 even if Obama wins a 2nd term. (Few Secretaries of State do more than 1 term.)

I don't know what she'd do after ruling Foggy Bottom. But if it's a presidential bid in 2016, returning to the Senate won't help her.


Should I help, I thought. Am I allowed to touch a Kennedy?: At the risk of going all Miss Manners on you, I'd just have gently asked him, "May I help you with that, sir?"

And in the interests of bipartisanness, I'd have done the same for Senators Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, or Bernie Sanders (on the left), and anyone in between them on the political spectrum.

Paul Kane: Yeah, trust me, I realized years later that I should have helped the guy. It was both a crazy moment for me, a young kid seeing a Kennedy up close for the first time ever, and it was a moment that taught a lesson: Senators have just as much trouble with basic things like their suit coats as normal people.


Next Liberal Lion of the Senate: I think the mantle for now falls to Sen. Leahy (VT). He has the experience, the passion, and the gravitas.

For the future, my money's on Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) rather than Sherrod. No disrespect to Sen. Brown -- he cuts an impressive figure. But a liberal Dem will always be slightly vulnerable in Ohio, so you can't bank on him having that 30-year Senate career. A liberal Dem from Rhode Island, on the other hand, should be able to hold his seat as long as he wants.

Paul Kane: Ah yes -- Whitehouse.

Shouldn't have forgotten him.

His specialty is going to be the liberal warrior on legal issues, such as executive power, judicial matters, intelligence issues. A former US attorney, Whitehouse singlehandedly almost derailed the AG nomination of Mukasey with his cross-examination in the 2007 hearings, regarding waterboarding.

But Whitehouse is not as astute on issues like health-care and labor and the workforce. On those matters Brown will be more of a liberal leader.

That's what made Kennedy so special on the left, because he was so comprehensive in his issues, he could be a leader on any and all issues. I'm not sure there's going to be anyone that can do that in his wake.


Florissant Valley, Mo.: Time to raise Kane. Hey, Paul: Whatever magical effects Kennedy's death may have on the national dialogue, it will in no way assist your Phillies in the NLCS against my Cards. Get ready to weep. 1964 all over again, my man. Sorry.

Paul Kane: Dude, did you have to invoke 1964?

That hurts.


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Paul, thanks for the chat. Do you believe that Sen. Kennedy's death will be the extra push needed to pass the public option of the health-care bill? Thanks.

Paul Kane: As I said earlier, the biggest effect Kennedy's death will have is on the tone of the debate in the days ahead. By mid-September, however, no one is going to be worried about Kennedy's legacy. They're going to be concerned about their constituents.


When Wellstone died in the plane crash in 2002: A bit off topic but I have to say that I think this was one of the most tragic events to happen in the last decade for American politics. Sen. Wellstone definitely would have taken the liberal leader mantle from Kennedy when he died, and done so with vigor. I say this as a Republican too, but Sen. Wellstone, in my opinion, was one of the big "what ifs" recently. A voice badly missed from the public stage.

Paul Kane: Here's a great Kennedy-Wellstone story. True story.

It's late 2001 or early 2002, and Kennedy is chairing the debate over the No Child Left Behind legislation.

In typical Kennedy fashion he has made his deal, he's cut the deal with the Bush White House. He's decided that this is the best deal possible, despite concerns about funding levels for education.

But liberals are really upset, they think Kennedy has sold out the cause and has made a deal with the Bush devil.

The key senators are gathered around a table in the LBJ Room off the Senate floor, and Paul Wellstone takes up the cause. Wellstone literally starts pounding the table, saying the No Child deal is not good enough. He's pounding the table with his fists.

Finally, finally, Kennedy's dog Splash -- who had a front-row seat to history for the last 10 years or so -- couldn't take it anymore. Splash wouldn't let anyone address his Senator that way. So Splash unloaded on Wellston and just started barking wildly at Wellstone.

It shut Wellstone down, and the entire room broke into laughter.

Soon thereafter, the legislation was signed into law.


williamsburg, va: Who is the conservative lion?

Paul Kane: This is a great question, also, because the departure of Phil Gramm and Jesse Helms in 2002 has left a void there for true conservatives.

On spending issues it's Tom Coburn, no doubt. On social values issues, I'm not really sure. It's probably Brownback, but he's running for governor now. On economic matters, it's probably not a senator, it's probably Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the House budget committee.


Minneapolis: This is a personal question for Paul. I noticed Howard Kurtz wrote about how several journalists admit to having fond feelings for the Senator. I'm curious -- does Paul, whom I've always believed is an absolutely consummate professional and brilliant writer -- also share this opinion?

Paul Kane: We spend a lot of time in the hallways talking to these senators. We cultivate them as sources, and over the years you end up getting to kinda/sorta know them a bit. It's not like we become close friends with them, at least not me. But we get to know them a bit.

I loved talking to Trent Lott. He was absolutely one of my favorite senators to talk with; as was John Sununu of New Hampshire. Sununu, in his early 40s, used to engage me with great discussions of what was the best U2 album of all time. (I'm an "Achtung Baby" person, he was a Joshua Tree guy, I think.)

With me, it's not an ideological thing. We get to know who we get to know.


Paul Kane: Ok gang, time to go. Thanks for the question. One last great Kennedy story: It's July 2008, Kennedy's been gone for 2 months now after being diagnosed with brain cancer. No one knows when he'll be back, and the Dems just missed getting to 60 votes in late June on a bill to save doctors from getting their fees slashed by Medicare. Harry Reid could only get to 59 votes.

Reid reschedules the vote again, and everyone thinks he's crazy, because he's gonna get just 59 votes again.

But word spreads that morning -- what about kennedy?

As the roll call starts, Kennedy walks onto the Senate floor, with John Kerry and Chris Dodd on both arms, serving as blockers to keep too many people from hugging or kissing him. (He's in bad shape and his immune system is incredibly weak.)

Upon seeing kennedy for the 1st time in 2 months, both sides of the aisle erupt in cheers. Kay Bailey Hutchison, tears coming down her face, races across the chamber and jumps into Kennedy's arms. Pretty soon the galleries are erupting in cheers.

It's a complete standing ovation. Even Mitch McConnell -- who really likes Kennedy personally -- is applauding wildly, as he also knows that he is about to lose a big vote because Kennedy has arrived.

Holding 60 definite votes, Dems are about to win. So, knowing the bill is gonna pass and the AMA is gonna give Dems all the credit, 9 Republicans -- including KBH and John Cornyn of Texas -- switch their votes from the previous Medicare vote. They join Kennedy's side, the winning side.

Reid gets 69 votes -- 10 more than he had 3 weeks earlier -- and the bill passes. A few days later Bush begrudgingly signs it into law.

Kennedy soaks in the applause, and then quietly Dodd, Kerry usher him back out, out a back door and into an awaiting car.

It wasn't the last vote of Kennedy's career. But it was his last major vote, his last big display in the Senate he so loved.

Thanks for bearing with me today, folks. It's a sad time in the Senate. I'll see you in a couple weeks.



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