Post-Kennedy, Bay State still wields clout

Delegation controls key posts in Congress

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / September 5, 2009

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WASHINGTON - When Congress returns next week from a monthlong recess, the empty chair once occupied by Senator Edward M. Kennedy will represent a historic loss in power along with the personal one felt by his grieving colleagues: it will be the first time in 47 years that a Kennedy is not in the Senate.

But Massachusetts still has unusual clout for its relatively small, all-Democratic delegation, who are major players on crucial issues such as health care, global warming, and financial regulation.

The influential lineup is largely because of the efforts of the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill, another heavyweight in Congress. The savvy politician made a point, delegation members said, to make sure Massachusetts’ members of Congress were placed on all the key committees in the House and, over time, they have risen to senior roles on those panels.

Among the House members from Massachusetts:

■ Barney Frank of Newton heads the House Financial Services Committee, giving him a leading role on financial regulatory reform.

■ Edward Markey of Malden is a major player on global warming issues, and his senior position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee gives him a central role on the health care overhaul that President Obama is advocating.

■ Bill Delahuntof Quincy is one of his party’s leading voices on Latin America issues in the House, and as chairman of the oversight committee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been a major player in examining the Guantanamo Bay prison.

■ James McGovern of Worcester is second in seniority on the House Rules Committee, which has a pivotal role in the writing of bills.

■ Richard E. Neal of Springfield is a subcommittee chairman on the House Ways and Means Committee, which is involved in the health care legislation, and is considered a strong contender to lead the full committee should its current chairman, embattled Representative Charlie Rangel of New York, leave the job.

■ John Olver of Holyoke is what colleagues call a “cardinal,’’ meaning he holds a subcommittee chairmanship on the Appropriations Committee, which controls federal spending. Others hold leadership positions in the Democratic caucus or on subcommittees.

In the Senate, John F. Kerryis chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a leader on foreign policy and climate change.

Massachusetts has long boasted powerful names in Congress: O’Neill, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Representative Joseph Moakley, and senators John and Edward Kennedy. And with nearly 47 years in the Senate, the youngest of the Kennedy brothers became one of the chamber’s most legendary members, irreplaceable as a legislative tactician.

Even with its deep congressional bench, Massachusetts will not have the same authority in Washington it had with Kennedy on the team, members of the delegation said.

While Kennedy was well-known nationally for his work on big domestic issues such as health care, the minimum wage, and education policy, he was also a fierce advocate for his state, taking a personal role in handling constituent casework traditionally left to House members. The senator’s legendary name, along with the booming voice that both charmed and intimidated bureaucrats on the other end of the phone line, made him an unusually powerful force.

“He was the clout master, the go-to guy to get everything done. He’s going to be missed terribly,’’ McGovern said. “There’s no denying that Kennedy was the power behind our delegation. Every program [Massachusetts wanted] had his fingerprints all over it.’’

“No other senator in history has been as influential as Ted,’’ Frank added in an interview. “It’s a loss, in terms of our ability to do things.’’

Frank recalled a battle over a bridge in Fall River that the Bush administration and a GOP senator wanted razed to allow liquefied natural gas tankers to pass. Kennedy showed up at a meeting to save the bridge, and the Republican colleague deferred to the veteran Massachusetts lawmaker, he said.

Neal said Kennedy frequently secured Senate funding not only for major health programs important to Massachusetts, but for such local items as a Dr. Seuss theme park in Springfield. “He relished the opportunity to immerse himself in the details of an issue - then the satisfaction he took in calling you back to tell you on the Senate side, it had been resolved,’’ Neal said.

On policy matters specific to the state, Kennedy was a key advocate. He worked to get the federal waiver required for Massachusetts to undertake its mandatory health insurance plan. Even while ill with brain cancer, Kennedy called Michael Leavitt, then health and human services secretary, to argue - successfully - to get the waiver extended.

Kennedy’s determined, on-the-ground advocacy for the Natick Laboratory in 2005 was instrumental in keeping it open during the Pentagon’s base closings that year, Markey said.

And with the Big Dig, “we never would have had that level of funding had it not been for the Kennedy influence,’’ said Ron Kaufman, a longtime adviser to Republican presidents. “It’s going to be a loss in many ways.’’

The huge void left by Kennedy’s absence is another reason, Delahunt said, to change Massachusetts law to allow for a temporary appointment to the seat.

“Let’s be very clear: we compete with other states’’ and may lose out if Massachusetts has just one senator fighting for state priorities, Delahunt said. And while Kerry will take on much of Kennedy’s constituent casework, the sheer volume of requests is too much for a single senator, Delahunt said.

“I fear there will be thousands of cases that will fall through the cracks or be delayed,’’ he said.

Nor will the Bay State have a senator chairing the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a Senate panel that has a say on about half the federal budget. Kennedy used the committee to advance his health and education priorities.

Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and one of Kennedy’ closest friends, is in line to take the chairmanship of the committee, but it is unclear whether Dodd will give up his leadership of the Banking Committee to take the health chairmanship. Senate rules do not allow Dodd to chair both panels.

“The vacuum Ted Kennedy leaves is enormous, but if we work hard, we have the capacity to continue to deliver for Massachusetts,’’ said Markey, dean of the Massachusetts delegation and a potential successor to Kennedy in the Senate. “We’ll work harder because Teddy’s not there. That’s our pledge to him.’’

Susan Milligan can be reached at