Senate Has Changed in Kennedy's Time

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In the spring of 2003, the United States 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.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, fearing for the future of the institution, turned to a historian for help. He invited Robert A. Caro, author of the epic Lyndon B. Johnson biography, “Master of the Senate,” to speak to lawmakers about Senate traditions, and the founding fathers’ vision of it as a place for extended debate.

To Mr. Caro, Mr. 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 men like Webster and Calhoun and Clay. But it was also a reminder of how much the Senate had changed during Mr. 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,” Mr. Caro said.

It is a tradition, he said, “that seems all but lost today.”

From physical changes to the chamber — in 1986 the lighting was brightened for television and the slouchy overstuffed couches were 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 Mr. Kennedy joined in November 1962.

Like the nation itself, it 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 sizable 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, Mr. Kennedy’s first full year in the Senate, the leaders filed just one “cloture motion,” Senate parlance for the procedure that can end 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 Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat and longest-serving senator (at 91, having served for 50 years, he is frail and in failing health) today’s senators are rarely acclaimed for eloquent discourse...

... It is tempting to wax nostalgic about the good old days, but some things about the Senate have inarguably changed for the better. Today’s Senate is more diverse, with women especially represented in greater numbers. There were only two women in the Senate when Mr. Kennedy joined, while today there are 17. The women of the Senate share monthly off-the-record dinners (no aides allowed), organized by Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland and the longest-serving female senator.

The Senate staff is much larger and more professional today, with deep policy expertise. Mr. Kennedy’s staff was widely considered the best and the brightest, with high-powered alumni, among them a Supreme Court justice, Stephen G. Breyer. But Adam Clymer, a Kennedy biographer and former New York Times reporter, says there is a downside to specialization: today’s senators rely more on their aides than on one another...

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