Kennedy Legacy in Limbo

Democrats Hunting for Next Liberal Lion

Posted October 9, 2009 at 6:23pm

As the Senate works to pass a comprehensive health care reform bill that is in part a nod to Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) legacy on the issue, how the rest of the late Senator’s pet causes move forward in his absence is a question that Democrats have yet to answer.

“The one thing we know is there won’t be that one force of nature behind things, and how the team comes together is unclear,— a Democratic aide and former Kennedy staffer said.

Kennedy passed away Aug. 25 after battling brain cancer for more than a year. Absent much of that time while he received treatment, Kennedy tapped Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to steer health care legislation through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and similarly asked Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) to commandeer the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the new HELP chairman who kept Kennedy’s staff in place, has taken the lead on the Employee Free Choice Act, and at the opening of this Congress, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) assumed the gavel of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, a position held by Kennedy until last year.

While Schumer and Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have picked up discrete parts of the immigration bill, Kennedy’s absence is most largely being felt on social issues, including reproductive and gay rights.

Freshman Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has taken the lead on an employee nondiscrimination bill, which he co-sponsored this year with Kennedy, aimed to protect gays and women. Likewise, Kennedy’s absence on abortion issues has made the way for Senators such as Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Still, lobbyists say there is a noticeable gap in leadership on gay rights.

“We do not have the kind of lion prowling the Senate floor making sure LGBT rights are front and center,— said Robert Raben of the Raben Group. “In terms of investing precious personal floor time and making this a fight as opposed to one of the things [a Senator] is interested in, there are precious few Senators who appreciate that these are rights that have to be fought for. Sen. Kennedy implicitly understood that.—

Human Rights Campaign’s Allison Herwitt said Kennedy’s death was devastating for the community. The group honored his legacy Saturday, establishing the Edward M. Kennedy National Leadership Award.

Kennedy had approached the gay rights community more than two years ago, saying he wanted to champion a bipartisan bill out of the Senate Armed Services Committee to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.— Advocates say he was unable to complete his goal as his illness worsened.

Still, Aubrey Sarvis, head of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he is optimistic that there will be movement on repealing the law.

“I think it’s a matter of getting up to speed for some Senators and it’s timing, but I expect to see Senators stepping up and leading on this,— Sarvis said.

The rest of Kennedy’s issue portfolio, from labor issues to campaign finance reform, has informally been spread throughout the caucus. But as the Senate remains focused almost exclusively on reforming health care, few — if any — Members have proved capable of multitasking as Kennedy did for close to five decades.

“There’s just a gaping hole in the Senate without Ted’s presence,— Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.

Durbin specifically pointed to last week’s debate over extending unemployment benefits as an example. Despite the unemployment rate at 9.8 percent and benefits set to expire for thousands out of work, few Senators made noise about the issue.

“I don’t want to second-guess those that follow on his committee because they’re good, too, but he would’ve been on the floor talking about unemployment benefits,— Durbin said. “He always stood up for the little guy, and we need more of that in the Senate.—

While Democrats look within their ranks for younger Members to advance the issues long championed by Kennedy, Republicans wonder who will be their next liberal adversary at the negotiating table.

“We’ll just have to see,— Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said. “All our relationships are different. The Senate historically is full of big personalities, and we’re always adjusting.—

Indeed, those bracing for a possible immigration debate next year expect a much different process under Schumer. Republicans are curious how Schumer’s political tenacity will affect negotiations, while some Democrats privately express concerns that the New Yorker may not listen to their priorities as closely as Kennedy did.

“He’s got a political side, much like Sen. Kennedy, but I think Sen. Schumer will make deals,— Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, adding that with Kennedy’s long history on the issue, “Ted’s fingerprints will be on any bill we take up.—

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said, “I don’t think if Sen. Kennedy were alive they’d want to negotiate.—

Brown is often mentioned as the Democrat most likely to carry the Kennedy torch of being a liberal firebrand on a wide swath of issues.

“Sherrod Brown is Kennedy-esque in respect to policy and emotion, [but] he just doesn’t have the 40 years of relationships,— Raben said.

Brown, elected to the Senate in 2006 after serving seven terms in the House, said taking on Kennedy’s role in the Senate is “like when some kid tries to imitate LeBron James in the backyard.—

“You can take on his issues, but you can’t replicate it,— Brown said.