WASHINGTON -- When the Senate voted last summer to provide Medicare patients with prescription drug coverage, a fiery Senator Edward M. Kennedy hailed the bill as "the greatest action in a generation to mend the broken promise of Medicare."
Now, it is Kennedy complaining about broken promises, after Republican leaders took the bill Kennedy painstakingly negotiated and morphed it into an industry-friendly "Medicare reform" package that opens the 38-year-old entitlement program to competition with private insurers. The senator, who had spent months cajoling Democrats to back his version of the legislation, was back on the floor this week with equal passion, pleading with his colleagues to stop the measure he charged had been "hijacked" by Republicans.
It was the second time Kennedy had seen legacy-building legislation he had crafted become a source of disappointment and division within his own party. No Child Left Behind, Kennedy's signature education reform bill, was underfunded by the Bush administration and is being attacked by teachers for undermining local control of schools.
Some Democrats complain that Kennedy, in a reach for career-capping legislation, has ended up handing two of the party's most potent issues to the Republicans.
Kennedy himself blames President Bush and the GOP, alleging unfair dealing.
"When the president of the United States looks you in the eye and says the resources will be there, I believe it," Kennedy said, referring to the funding for the education bill. But "the resources haven't been there."
In response, Kennedy vowed to change his own tactics, saying he wants to "pre-conference" bills to avoid building support for legislation that, once passed by the Senate, gets rewritten in conference committees with conservative House members.
But in the wake of the Medicare negotiations, many are skeptical of Kennedy's ability to advance his agenda. Lawmakers and analysts are quick to note that Kennedy still carries tremendous clout in Washington, but they question whether the Senate's second-most-senior member can achieve the goals he seeks in education and health care in a brutally partisan Congress.
There is a "much sharper ideological polarization now than when Kennedy did much of his signature legislating," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution. "And the Republicans in the White House and in the majority in Congress are more focused, unified, and tough in pursuing their policy and political objectives than Democrats ever were in a comparable position."
Kennedy carries a national reputation as one of the Democratic Party's most dedicated liberals, a man whose craggy, well-known face raises beloved memories of Camelot among Democrats and stokes the anger of conservative Republicans. But on Capitol Hill, the 71-year-old senator is known as a deal-maker, wheedling what he can get by developing unlikely alliances with such conservative Republican senators as Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who said he came to Washington "to fight Ted Kennedy" counts his Judiciary Committee colleague as a personal friend; Kennedy's 70th birthday party at his home last year was attended by several high-ranking Republicans and Bush administration officials.
The senator's readiness to compromise with Republicans has irritated some of his liberal allies, who were baffled by his support of the USA Patriot Act, for instance, and his refusal to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada and Europe.
Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, was among those perplexed by Kennedy's efforts this summer to pass the original Medicare bill and disappointed by the reality of No Child Left Behind, which imposes performance and testing standards on schools.
"I followed his lead on No Child Left Behind, and I'm sorry I voted for the darn thing," Harkin said in an interview this summer. But Harkin, like many of Kennedy's friends, this week defended Kennedy's efforts on Medicare. Kennedy lined up Democratic support for an initial bill that was hailed as a bipartisan compromise. Then, Republican leaders went behind Kennedy's back to rewrite the bill to their own specifications. When it finally emerged, it was vastly different. The provision exposing some aspects of Medicare to private competition was added completely.
"I can understand why Senator Kennedy is upset," Harkin said.
But it was too late for Kennedy, who mounted a lonely and passionate campaign to kill the bill the senator charged was "a calculated program to unravel Medicare, to privatize it, to voucherize it, and to force senior citizens into the cold arms of HMOs." Defeated Tuesday on one of his most dearly-held issues, Kennedy walked off the floor, politely rebuffing approaches by several of his friends and colleagues who had just voted to transform a program whose creation Kennedy had witnessed from the same chamber nearly four decades before.
"You have to wonder if Senator Kennedy had not gotten out ahead up front on Medicare and prescription drugs, whether the momentum . . . would have ever gotten as strong as it got to be," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "He basically credentialed the Republican effort. By the time he jumped off the train, it had already built up momentum."
Conservatives maintain that for all of his complaints, Kennedy has gotten largely what he wanted: nearly $395 billion in new drug benefits under Medicare, representing the biggest expansion of the Great Society program in its history, as well as a record level of education spending under the still not fully funded No Child Left Behind package.
"Kennedy got Republicans to build the infrastructure of the Medicare entitlement" for prescription drugs, which will probably receive more funding in the future, said Robert Moffet, a health care analyst with the Heritage Foundation. "I don't see this as a loss for Senator Kennedy." Tom Scully, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, said he would be "astounded" if Kennedy did not ultimately support the program "when the politics calm down."
Kennedy, for his part, said his experience with Medicare has convinced him to take new measures to protect other bills he has been negotiating with Republicans, including the reauthorization of Head Start and the IDEA program for disabled students. He said he will demand commitments up front that Democrats be included in conference committees, and that major changes are avoided.
On future bills, Kennedy said, he will have to ask himself, "Do we pass this, or not pass this? Will it get hijacked in conference? We may have to have a situation where you don't pass the bill unless you pre-conference it" -- that is, obtain a firm agreement with House leaders in advance.
Looking tired but resolute despite his recent defeat, Kennedy vowed to start fighting for the bills he cares about on next year's agenda.
"We've got a Republican White House, a Republican House, and a Republican Senate -- it's difficult," he said. But "If I were to make up my mind that there's no need to try, I wouldn't remain in the Senate."