By J. Taylor Rushing - 09/10/09 10:10 PM EDT
The Senate marked the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy on Thursday with a long day of floor speeches in his honor, punctuated by an effort to rename one of the most famous rooms on Capitol Hill after his fabled family.
Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution renaming the Caucus Room in the 100-year-old Russell Senate Office Building as the Kennedy Caucus Room, in honor of the three Kennedy brothers who served in the Senate. The move caught some Republicans by surprise, with some striking a noncommittal stance for now.
The late President John F. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy in the room, and had his Senate office nearby from 1953 to 1960. The late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy also used the same caucus room for his own presidential candidacy announcement in 1968 even though his Senate office was in the adjacent Dirksen Senate Office Building.
The third-floor room is also just around the corner from Sen. Edward Kennedy’s own office suite, and was even the site of the successful healthcare bill vote this summer by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which Kennedy chaired at the time.
Dodd recalled the room’s long history as the site where “we have commemorated tragedy, celebrated triumph, and held some of the great American debates.”
“It is there that I propose we affix the Kennedy name, not just as a monument to the things that the three Senators Kennedy have done, but to the spirit of compassion and compromise, fierce advocacy and tender friendship that Teddy embodied perhaps more than any other Senator of our time,” Dodd said.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was in the Senate Thursday to swear in new Florida Sen. George LeMieux (R), sidestepped the question of renaming the room but said Kennedy deserves some kind of tribute.
“I don’t know about the caucus room, but something consequential should be named after him,” Biden said. “In the whole history of the United States Ted Kennedy is one of the two or three finest, most consequential senators in American history.”
Kerry said Kennedy gave his blessing to Dodd for the effort but that he wanted his brothers included instead of an individual honor. Kerry also said he agreed with the sentiment expressed from some senators on Thursday that the effort should go through the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over such issues.
“That’s very much what Teddy wanted. Chris had a conversation with him, and he thought it was important that his brothers were a part of it,” Kerry said.
Mindful of the room’s history, Republicans on Thursday urged a go-slow approach to the effort even though they emphasized their likely support.
“Personally I’m empathetic and would have no problem, but they ought to build support for it,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of Kennedy’s closest friends. “You’re talking about one of the most famous rooms in the whole Capitol.”
Other Republicans were unaware of the Dodd-Kerry resolution and withheld their immediate endorsement.
“Ted Kennedy, having just passed away, obviously deserves a lot of consideration because of his long, long, effective career in the U.S. Senate,” said Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, who worked with Kennedy on immigration reform in 2007. “I hadn’t heard about this. I’m not trying to be negative, I would just have to think about it.”
But moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said while cautiousness is usually wise when adding names to buildings and monuments, Kennedy’s 46 years of Senate service is distinct.
“Normally I would say it is better to go slowly, but Sen. Kennedy’s impact is so enormous, and his service spans so many years,” Collins said. “It’s not as if we would be naming the room after someone who’s only been here briefly or whose legacy is not yet certain or who’s still alive.”
Throughout Thursday, senators came to the chamber individually to offer remarks in tribute to the 77-year-old senator who died Aug. 25 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer. Under Senate custom, Kennedy’s back-row desk remained covered in black cloth, a vase of white flowers and the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” as it has since the senator’s death.
One of the day’s most emotional tributes came from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest-serving senator in Congress who has battled his own health problems in recent years. Byrd gave a tearful speech calling Kennedy “a towering figure on our national political landscape” even though he said they were once rivals.
“I still have difficulty believing that he is gone,” Byrd said. “My ebullient Irish-to-the-core friend has departed this life forever. How bleakly somber. How utterly final. How totally unlike Ted Kennedy in life… In a thousand ways large and small he will simply be deeply, deeply missed.”
Eric Zimmerman contributed to this story.