Kennedy, Byrd, and Assorted Reflections

The pair of medical emergencies at today’s inaugural luncheon reminds me of one of the lessons you learn if you live in Washington for even a little while: when living in this city and following politics closely, it’s easy to forget the humanity that lies behind all the partisanship and power plays. Ted Kennedy’s seizure and Robert Byrd’s reported removal for unknown reasons should bring to mind these men’s accomplishments and produce a concern for their well-being. I’ll admit that my first reactions were: (1) big news! and (2) holy cow, Obama is drifting dangerously afield of that all-important 60-vote mark.

Those are awful responses, and the people who end their careers in this city beloved by their peers (think Tim Russert) are the ones who suppress them. They’re political junkies like the rest of us, of course. But they never forget that big shots in this town, hard as it may be to recognize sometimes, are people, too. They keep in touch because they care about people, not because they want to network. They help out up-and-comers because they genuinely want to share the success they themselves experience. When they retire or pass away, all of the people who lived by a different set of values wax poetic, with a twinge of regret.

So in the spirit of people like that, let’s wish Kennedy and Byrd all the best. They are both titans of the Senate. Kennedy’s professional history is packed with big fights that he fought for little people. Few in the history of the country have done more for working Americans than him. Let’s hope he lives long enough to see universal health care a reality. Byrd I can speak less glowingly about, particularly because he seems have seen the federal government primarily as a cash machine for his native West Virginia. But he’s a fighter, and hopefully he finds peace.

If you are interested in the political implications, this is my understanding of what happens if Barack Obama tries to push legislation through the Senate tomorrow. Roland Burris has been sworn in. Hillary Clinton is still a senator because she has not yet been confirmed and has not yet resigned. Now-former Senator Ken Salazar was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior today (along with a few other cabinet members), and it is unclear if his replacement, Michael Bennet, has been sworn in. That means that of the 59 Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats, three people will definitely be missing — Kennedy, Byrd, and the all-but-official Al Franken — and one, Bennet, will possibly be missing.

Is 55 or 56 votes substantially worse than 59? It depends on the bill, of course. But at the moment, let’s put aside our concerns. Obama is working awfully hard to ensure that gobs of Republicans sign on to all of his major moves. He reportedly wanted 80 votes on the stimulus bill, which, if he meets that target, will mean roughly 25 supportive Republicans. And besides, there are people in the hospital. Let’s wait a few minutes before doing more than a paragraph’s worth of political analysis.


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