In the spring of 2003, the U.S. Senate was heading for a meltdown. Democrats were blocking confirmation of federal judges. Republicans were set to retaliate with a “nuclear option”: a new rule stripping senators of their right to filibuster judicial nominations.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, fearing for the future of the institution, turned to a historian for help. He invited Robert Caro, author of the epic Lyndon Johnson biography, “Master of the Senate,” to speak to lawmakers about the Senate's traditions, and the founding fathers' vision of it as a place for extended debate.
To Caro, Kennedy's own knowledge of Senate history and reverence for its ideals was yet another reminder of why his host deserved a place in the pantheon of Senate greats, alongside giants like Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. But it was also a reminder of how much the Senate had changed during Kennedy's 46 years there.
“Ted Kennedy was a senator out of another, very different, Senate era: an era in which senators who believed in great causes stood at their desks, year after year and decade after decade, fighting for those causes, and educating the country about them,” Caro said. It is a tradition, he said, “that seems all but lost today.”
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From physical changes to the chamber – in 1986, the lighting was brightened for television and the slouchy overstuffed couches cleared away – to the arrival of women, to the disappearance of the conservative Southern Democrats who used their clout to strangle civil-rights legislation, the Senate of today is far different from the one Kennedy joined in 1962.
Like the nation itself, the Senate has become coarser, more partisan, and, many scholars and politicians argue, more dysfunctional. As both parties have moved to their ideological extremes, the center is all but gone.
“When Kennedy came, both political parties in the Senate were internally divided,” said Don Ritchie, the associate Senate historian. “There were as many Eisenhower Republicans as Goldwater Republicans. There were more liberal Democrats but a sizeable number of conservative Democrats. There was never a party-line vote on anything. There were ideological coalitions rather than partisan coalitions.”
One measure of that partisanship is the rise of the filibuster, once a rarity that was reserved for the great legislative debates of the day. Today, rare is the bill that does not face a filibuster threat.
In 1963, Kennedy's first full year in the Senate, the leaders filed just one “cloture motion,” Senate parlance for the procedure that ends a filibuster by cutting off debate. Last year, 50 cloture motions were filed.
The Senate was then, and is now, a clubby place governed by its own peculiar rules and conventions. But with the possible exception of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the longest-serving senator (at 91, having served for 50 years, he is in declining health), today's senators are rarely acclaimed for eloquent discourse.
Byrd's March 2003 speech opposing the war in Iraq, for instance, made him an octogenarian Internet sensation; until he became ill, he was known to give Senate speeches on matters as simple as the beauty of spring. But in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the world's greatest deliberative body is finding it harder to be, well, deliberative.
Consider the communications style of two other longtime senators, Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Democrat, and Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican. Each has served 28 years in the Senate.
Not long ago, they got into a spat over health care – through their Twitter feeds.
On Wednesday, when news of Kennedy's death was announced, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, declared that “the Kennedy family and the Senate family have together lost our patriarch.” Yet some members lament that with fundraising pressures growing increasingly intense and members rushing home every weekend, the Senate's family days are behind it. Friendships, an essential ingredient to passing legislation, are harder to forge today, both within parties and across party lines.
Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican and good friend of Kennedy who was defeated for re-election last year, recalls that when he joined the Senate in 1969, the Democratic leader, Mike Mansfield, urged freshmen to form bipartisan dinner groups “to get to know one another on a personal basis.” He remembers carpooling to work with Edmund Muskie, the Maine Democrat.
“There were a bunch of us who lived over the District line, we all had kids, we all had one car, we'd pair up and drive to the Senate,” Stevens said. “It was a sharing Senate at the time, without regard to politics. It was a family. It's not a family anymore.”
As Kennedy is being lionized in death, it is difficult to envision the modern Senate producing another lawmaker who could amass his longevity and his record, or who could use the Senate, as he did, as a forum to educate the nation, decade in and decade out.
“There is no Kennedy of the future,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the Senate. “You've got some smart, diligent, hardworking, impressive senators. Is any of them like Kennedy? It's like looking at a major league baseball game and seeing some really good players and knowing there's no Ted Williams in that group.”