Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009

Fulfilling a nation’s promise

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / August 26, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Edward M. Kennedy’s legacy in the Senate reads like a response to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’’

Kennedy spent most of five decades on Capitol Hill trying to fulfill the promises inherent in that invitation, seeing it as government’s responsibility to give aid to the disadvantaged.

From his work on human rights in Chile, to his exhaustive efforts to expand health care, revise immigration laws, help people pay for college, and create equal opportunity regardless of race, gender, disability, or genetic background, Kennedy’s record of sustained accomplishments embodies a large portion of modern America’s social policy agenda.

As author of more than 2,500 pieces of legislation, Kennedy solidified his international reputation as the liberal stalwart of the Senate. And, not least because his deft ability to compromise helped make several hundred of those bills law, he was frequently cited by senators of both parties as their most effective colleague. Nearly every piece of major health legislation since the 1960s has Kennedy’s fingerprints on it. His passion for education showed up in programs ranging from Head Start for poor children, to expanding loans for the college-bound, to job training for those not headed to higher education. In his long fight for women’s rights, he sponsored the doomed Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. But he scored a victory as co-sponsor of the sweeping Americans With Disabilities Act, which in 1990 protected the disabled from discrimination at work and at business establishments.

One of the wealthiest members of the Senate, Kennedy also fought tirelessly for increases in the minimum wage. He pleaded with Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, to introduce another wage increase bill even as the two lawmakers were celebrating the House passage of a minimum wage hike in 2006 - an effort that had taken 10 years to complete.

Kennedy touched millions of lives in other ways that are not always remembered because they do not fit into his reputation as the liberal lion. For instance, he championed private industry over the government in 1978 when he won approval of a law deregulating the airlines. The change had the dramatic effect of expanding air travel to a broader range of fliers but made travel more expensive to rural areas, aggravating Kennedy fans such as former South Dakota Senator George McGovern.

He was a key sponsor in 1970 of the bill giving 18-year-olds the right to vote, insisting at the height of the Vietnam War that “if young people are old enough to fight, they are old enough to vote.’’ That measure continued to affect presidential campaigns through the election of a man Kennedy endorsed, President Obama, whose support among young voters helped propel him to victory.

In the realm of government reform, he introduced the first bipartisan campaign finance overhaul act in 1973, a year later winning passage of a law imposing the first-ever limits on campaign contributions while providing public financing provisions for presidential elections. And in 1976, Kennedy authored the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, creating special courts to monitor US intelligence agency surveillance. During the Bush administration, Kennedy became a vocal critic of what he dubbed abuses of the law. Some of Kennedy’s biggest initiatives did not turn out as he planned. Known for his ability to work with political foes, Kennedy teamed up with former President George W. Bush to write the No Child Left Behind Act, a law that ushered in unprecedented federal involvement in elementary and secondary education. The law sets standards for schools and mandates testing to assess whether schools are making progress.

But Kennedy was disheartened to find that Bush failed to fully fund the act, a move the senator saw as a personal betrayal because the president, according to Kennedy, had looked him squarely in the eye and pledged to give the law the cash it needed.

Health care was a driving force in Kennedy’s legislative agenda throughout his many decades in the Senate. In 1966, the young senator won expansion of the Economic Opportunity Act, which created a national health center system. In 1971, Kennedy filed his first effort toward universal coverage - a straight-up national health care system - but failed to get the measure passed.

Unable to persuade Congress and the White House to create a sweeping national plan, Kennedy painstakingly went about expanding health care on a piecemeal basis. He teamed up with conservative Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch to create the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, cementing a relationship with Hatch that would turn into a genuine friendship and a powerful political alliance.

Another key part of his health care legacy was his work crafting the Medicare prescription drug benefit, known as Medicare Part D. Many Democrats initially balked at the measure, arguing that its “doughnut hole’’ in drug coverage - a cost range in which seniors would not receive benefits - would make the program inadequate and would anger older voters critical to the Democratic base.

But Kennedy argued that it was best to get the prescription benefit plan in place while supporters had the chance, with the Republican Bush in support in 2003, and then fix the details in subsequent years. Republicans, however, so extensively rewrote the bill, adding incentives for seniors to move away from Medicare and toward private plans, that Kennedy in the end led the unsuccessful fight against passage.

Although Kennedy was unable to win passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in his role as co-sponsor, he continued to push for women’s rights. Last year, he celebrated the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act - a bill he sponsored and ushered through the Senate that expanded the rights of workers to sue for past pay discrimination.

He battled over decades for immigration reform, winning passage of an historic measure in 1965 to change the standards for allowing immigrants into the country. While newcomers had been limited by quotas - ceilings that tended to benefit Western Europeans - Kennedy’s bill changed the law to focus on family connections and job skills. He continued to fight for a sweeping immigration law in his later years - a law that would have increased “guest workers’’ and provided a path to legal status for the country’s 12 million undocumented workers.

Although Kennedy was known more for domestic than foreign policy, he took a strong position on human rights around the world, engaging in a decades-long effort to encourage the peace process in Northern Ireland and winning approval of laws punishing Chile in 1974 for its military coup and South Africa in 1986 for its apartheid policy.

Securing rights for the disabled was an ongoing goal for Kennedy, whose sister Rosemary had a mental disability and whose son, Teddy, lost his leg to cancer. The Massachusetts senator won approval of laws guaranteeing access for the disabled at polling stations, ensuring equal education for children with disabilities, and protecting the handicapped from discrimination in housing.

Kennedy was a major figure pushing the Women, Infants and Children program to provide nutritional aid to needy pregnant women and mothers. He won passage of laws setting standards for pharmaceuticals and mammograms, and - with his odd-couple colleague Hatch - passed the Ryan White CARE Act providing emergency aid to cities hit by the AIDS epidemic.

Kennedy never realized his dream of achieving a universal health care system - a measure he continued to fight for even as he was battling his own illness. But even in his last year, a time marred by seizures and the exhaustion of chemotherapy, he managed to score legislative victories. Former president Bush signed a law Kennedy had fought for 13 years to get: a ban on discrimination on the basis of the results of genetic testing.