Opinion: Where are the liberal lions?

With the surprise announcement of Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinThe Hill's 12:30 Report Distance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday Grassley challenger no stranger to defying odds MORE’s (D-Iowa) retirement, the Senate is fast closing the book on post-Watergate politics that produced a generation of liberal Democrats.


Harkin’s announcement came the same week that five-term Massachusetts Senator John KerryJohn Forbes KerryTrump's dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Overnight Tech: Senate Dems want FCC chief recused from Sinclair merger | Tech rallies on Capitol Hill for DACA | Facebook beefs up lobbying ranks MORE left the body to become secretary of State. Earlier this month, another Senate five-termer, West Virginia Senator Jay RockefellerJay RockefellerOvernight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term Obama to preserve torture report in presidential papers MORE, said he doesn’t plan to run for re-election in 2014. Last month, 8-term Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii died.

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Since the deaths of Massachusetts’s Ted Kennedy and Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, the Senate has not had a signal, outstanding liberal voice. The liberal faction even takes a back seat to conservative Dems who hold the threat of defecting and costing the party its majority on key votes for gun control, taxes and spending. The conservative Democrats stopped the Democratic majority in the Senate from passing a budget for the last four years for fear it might be attacked as “liberal.”

Now the changing of the liberal guard is well under way and it is unclear which younger Democratic senators will step forward and become the keepers of the liberal flame. Washington Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayGOP senator: ObamaCare fix could be in funding bill Collins: Pass bipartisan ObamaCare bills before mandate repeal Murkowski: ObamaCare fix not a precondition for tax vote MORE is proving to be a strong liberal and a wily political strategist. But she has yet to break out as a leading liberal conscience and national voice.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidVirginia was a wave election, but without real change, the tide will turn again Top Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots Boehner confronted Reid after criticism from Senate floor MORE’s (Nev.) primary liberal credential is that he is a reliable ally in any storm for the man who once ranked as the most liberal politician in the Senate — President Obama. But with a 29 percent job approval rating in the latest New York Times poll, Sen. Reid’s power to define the liberal agenda is confined to his role in the Senate.

Standing behind Reid are two contenders for the mantle of new generation liberal lion: New York’s Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJuan Williams: The politics of impeachment Texas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' MORE and Illinois’ Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinQuestions loom over Franken ethics probe GOP defends Trump judicial nominee with no trial experience Democrats scramble to contain Franken fallout  MORE. Both are members of the “Gang of Eight,” which unveiled a comprehensive immigration  proposal last week.

But both Majority Whip Durbin and Senate Policy Committee Chair Schumer are busy simply trying to hold their 55-member majority together in support of Obama’s agenda. Their focus is on keeping tabs on potential defections from conservative Democrats such as North Dakota’s Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDemocrats scramble to contain Franken fallout  Overnight Finance: House passes sweeping tax bill in huge victory for GOP | Senate confirms banking regulator | Mulvaney eyed for interim head of consumer agency Overnight Regulation: Senators unveil bipartisan gun background check bill | FCC rolls back media regs | Family leave credit added to tax bill | Senate confirms banking watchdog MORE, Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDemocrats scramble to contain Franken fallout  Indiana Dems: GOP has double standard on donations from alleged assaulters GOP campaign committees call on Democrats to return Franken donations MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocrats scramble to contain Franken fallout  Overnight Finance: House passes sweeping tax bill in huge victory for GOP | Senate confirms banking regulator | Mulvaney eyed for interim head of consumer agency Overnight Regulation: Senators unveil bipartisan gun background check bill | FCC rolls back media regs | Family leave credit added to tax bill | Senate confirms banking watchdog MORE and Montana’s Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterAnother perfect storm: Why we must act before flood insurance runs dry Democrats scramble to contain Franken fallout  GOP campaign committees call on Democrats to return Franken donations MORE.

Over the last 50 years, the Senate’s liberal lions stood out for the capacity to speak as idealists and attract moderate Republicans to their deeply felt causes. One problem for today’s liberals is that there is only one moderate Republican left – Maine’s Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsStates fill family caregiver void left by Congress GOP senator: ObamaCare fix could be in funding bill Collins: Pass bipartisan ObamaCare bills before mandate repeal MORE.

Even Republicans who once dared to team with Democrats on break-through legislation, people such as Arizona’s John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Ad encourages GOP senator to vote 'no' on tax bill MORE and South Carolina’s Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock Graham on Moore: 'We are about to give away a seat' key to Trump's agenda Tax plans show Congress putting donors over voters MORE, are now living in fear of primary challenges from the far right. They are dealing with Sens. Schumer and Durbin on the current immigration proposal. But that is all a matter of convenience. Republicans need an immigration deal. There is no idealism at play from the right or the left.

Teddy Kennedy rose to become a liberal lion by collaborating with Republicans. His work with conservative Republican Senator Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchProminent conservative passes on Utah Senate bid Republicans offer this impossible choice: Tax cuts or senior care Senate GOP running out of options to stop Moore MORE (Utah) will always stand out as an example of liberal leadership that stood above the horse-trading of Washington politics. 

Kennedy was the protector of the Left but he was also a skilled politician able to bring over the center and the right. The result was bipartisan legislation dealing with immigration, entitlements and education. That made Kennedy an effective advocate for the idea of acting in the best interest of the poor, the young, the workingman, women’s rights and equal rights for minorities — old-fashioned liberal idealism.

There is no current Democratic senator close to commanding the kind of stature or authority that Kennedy did. Liberalism does not have a powerful advocate in the halls of Congress today and it shows. 

Last week, the New York Times’ liberal editorial page had enough. Senate Democrats increased their numbers in the last election, the paper editorialized, and have public opinion with them on taxes, guns, education and financial regulation. But those Senate Democrats remain paralyzed by fear. 

The paper cited disappointment with the filibuster reform deal reached by Senate leaders last month. The new rules did nothing to address the abuse of the filibuster and the 60-vote procedural threshold that has been used by the Republican minority to block virtually all legislation. 

After “being out-yelled by strident right-wing ideologues, too many in the Democratic Party still have a case of nerves, afraid of bold action and forth-right principles,” The Times’ editorial argued, in making the case for strong liberal voices to speak up. 

By simply calling for an end to the “silent” filibuster and requiring senators to be present and stand up to conduct an extended filibuster, Democratic Senators Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Cybersecurity: Kushner was contacted about WikiLeaks before election | Tech experts blast Trump's 'extreme vetting' plan | Senate passes defense bill with measure to modernize feds' IT FCC rolls back media regulations in move that critics say benefits Sinclair Overnight Tech: Senate Dems want FCC chief recused from Sinclair merger | Tech rallies on Capitol Hill for DACA | Facebook beefs up lobbying ranks MORE  (N.M.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate Democrats introduce bill to block Trump's refugee ban Overnight Defense: Army secretary easily confirmed | Army denies changing mental health standards | US to trim peacekeeping funds | House passes bill to speed up approval of battlefield medicines Senate approves Trump's Army pick MORE (Ore.) won praise as budding liberal heroes. 

A generational fight for the future of liberalism is now center stage in the Senate. 

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.