WASHINGTON -- A fastidiously crafted bill to authorize foreign aid and other State Department programs has been ready for Senate floor action since July. It has not yet been brought up, and there are no plans to do so when Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. The reason is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who as the Senate's liberal lion dominates that nominally Republican-controlled body.
Kennedy has pushed his hate crimes and minimum wage proposals as amendments to the State Department authorization, the first such bill approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 18 years. While opposing Kennedy's measures, the Republican leadership does not command the votes to defeat them and does not even want these issues debated. Thus, while the State Department bill is a high priority for President Bush that would give him more flexibility in foreign affairs, Kennedy holds the Senate's Republican majority at bay.
This standoff tells much about the Senate today. Except for retiring Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, Senate Democrats tend to vote in lockstep. Up to a half-dozen Republicans break party lines on key votes. Senate "debates" on sensitive issues are usually one-sided, with Democrats verbose and Republicans tongue-tied. Orchestrating this Democratic dominance, sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes on the Senate floor, is Teddy Kennedy.
It has been 23 years since Kennedy ran for president and much longer than that since he was written off as his famous family's wastrel. He has held no party leadership post since Sen. Robert Byrd deposed him as Democratic whip after the 1970 elections. Yet today, he sets the tone of the Senate, perhaps more so since Republicans regained a majority in the 2002 elections. At age 71, Teddy is at the peak of his power.
Kennedy's power was most dramatically demonstrated during the prescription drug debate when his mere act of setting up an easel with charts, in preparation for a filibuster, impelled Republicans to immediately drop demands for means-testing. He is the strategic and operational force behind the Democratic assault on President Bush's judicial nominations. He is behind incessant browbeating of Bush on education. He pursues a wide-ranging agenda of liberal issues -- including hate crimes and minimum wage legislation.