The Boston Phoenix November 16 - 23, 2000


The Mod Squad


by Seth Gitell

Meanwhile, both Massachusetts senators will move to the forefront. Although Kerry and Kennedy are loyal Democrats, both have a reputation for being able to work across party lines. Kerry, a 16-year Senate veteran, was an early supporter of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction initiatives. He is also known for his personal friendship with Senator John McCain of Arizona -- something that can't hurt given McCain's popularity these days. Kerry knows that the tight numbers in the Senate mean Democrats can get some Republicans to work with them on certain issues. "It's a lot harder for them to keep their numbers together," says Kerry.

The narrowly divided new Senate is likely to play especially well to Kennedy's mastery of arcane Senate procedures and institutional history. Kennedy has made a specialty of getting legislation passed under Republican presidents as part of the Senate minority -- from unemployment legislation, which he co-sponsored with Dan Quayle in the 1980s, to the 1991 Civil Rights Act, which was co-sponsored by Republican senator John Danforth of Missouri and signed by President Bush. And although he is an advocate of liberal causes, Kennedy actually has a history of reaching across the aisle to work with figures such as Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas.

"Ted Kennedy loves situations when it's so evenly divided so he can make deals," says Wittmann of the Hudson Institute. "This is where Ted Kennedy thrives. He knows how to lure ideological opposites to make legislation."

Kennedy's office says the senator is planning to do just that. "That's been one of the hallmarks of his career," says Kennedy press secretary Jim Manley. "I think that given the current partisan deadlock, those skills are going to be even more important than ever on Capitol Hill, no matter who is president."

Kennedy's strength in the Senate lies in the personal relationships he's developed with other senators -- even as partisanship has come to dominate the institution. Kennedy creates goals for each legislative session, and his name allows him to attract and keep a highly effective staff; in turn, he is able to exploit this advantage when it comes to Senate deal-making. When he began working on the Kennedy-Kassebaum health-insurance bill, for instance, opponents dismissed it out of hand. But it eventually passed with 99 other co-sponsors. Kennedy also strategizes about which particular Republicans would be willing to work with him on a given piece of legislation. "He's going to look at who's up for election in two years and who wants a moderate Republican record, not a conservative Republican record," says Peter Meade. "The best way for them to do that is to co-sponsor legislation with Senator Kennedy."

For a clue to how Kennedy will perform during the next session, watch his work with fellow New Englander Jeffords on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The strength of that relationship could dictate the extent of any major health reforms in the Senate during the next two years -- including prescription-drug reform.

"Kennedy's always shown an ability to work with Senator Jeffords on health issues," says Jeffords spokesman Erik Smulson. "Kennedy shows an ability to ratchet up the rhetoric on the one hand, but work with Republicans on the other."

Of course, the combined clout of the New England Republican moderates and the Democratic warhorses, such as Kerry and Kennedy, means one thing -- money, whether it's funding for the embattled Amtrak train system, assistance for dairy farmers, or more aid for home heating oil. The region's players could help bring home the bacon during the next two years. And don't forget about the economic engine for much of the region -- the universities.

"Seniority spells federal funding for home states. Committee assignments translate into federal bucks," says Smulson. "Obviously Senator Kennedy and Senator Kerry do a terrific job in terms of bringing home bucks. I think New England has a very loud voice in the Senate."

Kennedy, in particular, will try to enlist fellow Democrats and moderate Republicans in an attempt to get Bush -- if he ends up in the White House -- to live up to the compassionate part of his "compassionate conservative" agenda, aides say.

After two terms of Clinton, the Contract with America, and the impeachment fight, Americans are hoping that the next four years are less partisan. The current fight in Florida seems to suggest that these hopes are utopian. But one fact remains. Anyone who wants to accomplish anything in a Senate divided 50-50, or nearly so, will have to come through New England. Everyone might be paying more attention to old-fashioned Yankee politics.

Page 1 | 2

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

The Talking Politics archive