Kennedy’s Capitol

Like most Major League pitchers, politicians often lose their fastball late in their career.

Some know when to call it quits. Others do not, preferring to hang on well after their prime.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) never lost his fastball. And it can be argued that it got better with age.

There are countless Kennedy stories and legislative accomplishments over his storied career. A comprehensive look at his life and legacy cannot be captured in these few hundred words.

So in this space we are highlighting Kennedy’s presence on Capitol Hill, and specifically a July 9, 2008 vote that shows the enormous impact the Massachusetts Democrat had on his colleagues and the legislative process.

Kennedy chose that summer day to return to the Senate for the first time since he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Democrats were struggling to move stalled Medicare legislation that President George W. Bush had threatened to veto. The White House enjoyed the upper hand on the bill. In June, it had failed to advance by one vote.

When the measure came up again, Kennedy sent shock waves through the Capitol when he walked onto the Senate floor amid a rousing ovation from both sides of the aisle. Some senators teared up as a smiling Kennedy went to the well and declared “aye” in support of the bill.

In a statement, Kennedy said, “Win, lose or draw, I wanted to be here. I wasn’t going to take the chance that my vote could make the difference.”

Before Kennedy’s return, the healthcare bill didn’t attract many national headlines. It was a measure aiming to increase Medicare physician payments — not the kind of legislation that gets much attention outside the Washington Beltway. Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not vote that day, opting to stay on the presidential campaign trail.

(Kennedy fell short in his 1980 presidential bid, but his endorsement of Obama over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., last year had a huge impact on the race. Obama reportedly said the day he received the backing of the Liberal Lion was one of the most important days of his life.)

The most telling aspect of the July 9 vote was that Kennedy’s return made Republicans reconsider their positions on the healthcare bill.

Nine GOP senators who had previously voted no voted with Kennedy that day: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), John Cornyn (Texas), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mel Martinez (Fla.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and John Warner (Va.).

In an age when a campaign ad about a politician changing his/her own mind can be aired within hours on the Internet, the members’ shift is a tribute to Kennedy’s huge influence on lawmaking right up to the end of his career.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a close friend of Kennedy’s, said at the time, “I’ve been in the Senate for 27 years. I don’t quite remember another moment like it.”

Despite pleas from some Republicans, Bush vetoed the bill. Less than a week after Kennedy’s dramatic vote, Congress overrode the veto and the bill became law. It was just the third time Congress had successfully overridden a Bush veto.

As this week’s tributes have demonstrated, Kennedy was a beloved friend of many. He was also an engaging colleague, a daunting opponent and fearsome antagonist, and he was a force on Capitol Hill that was impossible to ignore.

The late senator’s impact on Capitol Hill can hardly be overestimated. Whether he was flashing his big smile to workers in the Senate, walking his dogs, holding court with reporters, offering advice to his loyal staff, giving a fiery speech on the floor or grilling a witness in a committee hearing, Kennedy’s presence was felt by everyone who walked the halls of the upper chamber.

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