Ted Kennedy's Senate

Posted: Aug 28, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

That collided with plans of Sen. Richard Lugar, taking over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to pass a foreign aid authorization for the first time since 1985. Instead of letting appropriators continue to dole out the money without guidelines, Lugar wanted the committee most familiar with foreign policy to set the parameters for aid. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist totally agreed. With Bush calling for more foreign aid authorization in fighting the war against terrorism, the bill became a Republican priority.

It was until Kennedy stepped in. High on his legislative list is the bill to extend federal jurisdiction to crimes committed because of the victim's gender, sexual orientation or physical disability -- hate crimes. Vigorously pushed by the homosexual lobby, the measure has become a pillar of Democratic orthodoxy.

Philosophically, Republicans oppose it as an unnecessary new category of crime that extends the grasp of the federal government. But many GOP senators were unwilling to appear to be voting against outlawing hate crimes, much less to speak out against it. Frist cannot find a majority against the Kennedy bill. Indeed, it is now the Kennedy-Smith bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon.

Following his caucus's wishes, Frist would not bring the Kennedy-Smith bill to the floor. Counter-move by Kennedy: attach hate crimes to the foreign aid bill. Counter-move by Frist: take the bill off the Senate floor.

Kennedy's minimum wage increase is another measure Republicans think unwise. Although they believe it will lose jobs, they fear the political consequences of voting against it or debating it. So, it too is in limbo.

The problem with the Senate Republicans is that they seem embarrassed to stand up for their principles, to say hate crimes legislation is political demagoguery and another minimum wage increase is bad economics. That's why they are having such difficulty in the majority, and that's why it seems more like Ted Kennedy's Senate than Bill Frist's.