By Dana Milbank, The president pro tempore of the Senate, 92-year-old Robert Byrd, shot his finger into the air to signal his “aye” vote.
“This,” the West Virginia Democrat called out strongly from his wheelchair, “is for my friend Ted Kennedy.”
That was very much the story of the massive health-care legislation that finally cleared the chamber Thursday morning. Though Kennedy died in August of brain cancer at age 77, the longtime senator from Massachusetts remained the Democrats’ spiritual floor leader.
More than anything, it was his memory, and his final exhortation, that allowed the Senate Democrats to overcome considerable differences between moderates and liberals in drafting a compromise. President Obama, in his address to Congress in September, read from a letter Kennedy had written as he neared death, saying he was “confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the president who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society.”
His widow, Vicki, watched the Christmas Eve vote from the gallery, just as she had Monday morning’s 1 a.m. procedural vote. Senators read aloud from her op-ed article in The Washington Post (“I humbly ask his colleagues to finish the work of his life”), and she received the first thank-you phone call President Obama made after the Thursday’s vote. One after the other, Senate colleagues invoked his name in a manner more often associated with his slain brothers.
“This morning’s vote brings us one step closer to making Ted Kennedy’s dream a reality,” Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said after the final vote.
“We stand with those who have blazed the trail ahead of us,” added Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the Finance Committee chairman, remembering “our good friend who is with us in spirit, Ted Kennedy.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hailed Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) for keeping “the flame of Ted Kennedy.” And Dodd, who considered Kennedy his closest friend, had tears in his eyes and choked up as he said, “I wish Ted Kennedy were here with us today to enjoy this.”
This Kennedy martyrdom was too much for the Republicans, every one of whom opposed the health-care bill. Sen. John Barasso (R-Wyo.) cited John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” and suggested that “it is time for one courageous Democrat to stand up” in opposition.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spoke at Kennedy’s memorial tribute and partnered with the Democrat on immigration, among other issues, added: “There is a great irony in the constant references to Senator Kennedy, who always began legislation by getting members of the other side of the aisle committed to working together.”
But Baucus wasn’t about to surrender the Kennedy mantle. “It is disrespectful — it is unseemly — for senators in this body to invoke the names of Ted Kennedy and Jack Kennedy in opposition to this bill,” he said.
Of course, the living can only guess what the liberal lion would have thought of the bill, which costs nearly a trillion dollars and extends health insurance to more than 30 million people. Would he have embraced it, as those closest to him say? Would he share Howard Dean’s concern that it was too weak? Would he have found a way to build bipartisan consensus where his successors conspicuously failed?
Whatever Teddy would have done, his colleagues dedicated their work to him. Dodd said he “fought long and hard in the memory of Ted Kennedy.” Harkin said that “this is Senator Ted Kennedy’s bill, and our late beloved colleague would be so proud.”
Over the weeks, the constant Kennedy references became tiresome, but they at least offered a respite from another of the lawmakers’ habits: proclaiming, a bit prematurely, their own historical importance. “We stand on the doorstep of history,” Reid said before Thursday’s vote.
The sentiment had endless echoes: “Today we make history” (Baucus); “an extraordinary moment in history” (Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.); “an opportunity to meet history’s gaze” (Dodd); and “one of the shining chapters in the history of the United States Senate and our nation” (Dick Durbin, D-Ill.). Obama called the Senate action a “historic vote,” while Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and other Republicans called it a “historic mistake.”
The Democrats sought to lend as much historical significance as they could to Thursday morning’s vote. The senators were seated at their desks, and Vice President Biden, who likened Kennedy to an older brother, presided in his role as Senate president.
Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, issued Biden a MacArthur-esque vow: “I want to assure you, Mr. President, this fight isn’t over. But Reid took the debate back to more comfortable ground, by summoning Kennedy’s spirit.
Quoting from the late lawmaker’s 1980 speech to the Democratic convention, Reid read: “With Senator Ted Kennedy’s booming voice in our ears — with his passion in our hearts — we say, as he said: ‘The work goes on, the cause endures.’ “
Reid had labored intensively to get the bill through, and the stress showed. When his name was reached in the roll call, he stood up and, inexplicably, called out “No.” Immediately realizing that he had just opposed his own legislation, he put his palms up in the air, put his head down on his desk as if to hide, then offered a shrug.
“There will be order in the Senate,” commanded Biden, to stop the bipartisan laughter.
Reid had admitted his weariness on Wednesday, when he said he planned to go home and, for a few days, “just sit back and watch my rabbits eat my cactus.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) must have been watching the proverbial cactus, for he nearly missed the big vote Thursday morning. When he finally rushed in, late, to cast his “aye” vote, his Democratic colleagues applauded. Republican Sen. Jim Bunning (Ky.) missed the vote entirely.
The final count was 60 to 39. By all accounts, the senior senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy, voted present.