At an Oct. 24 White House briefing on bioterrorism, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) held the seat of honor at President Bush's right hand. As the meeting began, a smiling Bush turned to grab Kennedy's arm: "I hear we're making great progress on the education bill," he said. "It's all due to you, Senator Kennedy."
The chumminess was enough to make party hard-liners gag. But the kinship between these two pedigreed sons of American political dynasties is sincere. Despite their substantial policy disagreements, the neophyte President and veteran senator have developed an easy rapport that has furthered each man's agenda.
"COMMON GROUND." And that has made Kennedy--who seemed politically isolated after the GOP took the White House and Congress last November--more influential than he has been in decades. When he cut a bipartisan deal on education reform, Bush's top domestic priority, angry Democrats said he had given up too much in return for establishing his bona fides with the President. Says a top Democratic aide: "We paid a price." But Kennedy apparently didn't. Now, as the war on terrorism pushes domestic issues to the back burner, the Bush-Kennedy team is still going strong, turning its attention to bioterrorism, immigration, and the economy. "Working with Bush isn't sacrificing principle, it's trying to find common ground," Kennedy says.
Even though strange bedfellows are nothing new to Washington, this pair was something of a shock to the system. After the 2000 election left the Senate almost evenly divided, conventional wisdom had Bush reaching out to moderates such as John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who are ideologically more in sync with the Prez. But Bush found himself increasingly comfortable around the plain-spoken Massachusetts liberal. Indeed, the Kennedy-Bush relationship dates to 1959, when Kennedy, chair of the student law center at the University of Virginia, invited the President's grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush, to speak.
Now, with Dems in control of the Senate and Kennedy at the helm of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, he is even more important to Bush. For Kennedy, across-the-aisle alliances aren't new. Despite his staunch liberalism, he is a pragmatist willing to sacrifice ideological purity for policy gains. In the late 1990s, he teamed up with conservative Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) on a series of bills that expanded spending on children's health care and aided everyone from immigrants to radiation victims. "I literally came here to fight Kennedy, [who was] wrecking the country," Hatch says. These days, he calls Kennedy "patriotic" and "decent." Adds Hatch: "In almost every case, he's come to the center, and I've had to move to the center, too." When Bush won the White House, Hatch suggested that he reach out to Kennedy for help with his agenda.
In coming weeks, Kennedy will partner with Bush ally Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on a bioterrorism bill that will pay for vaccine stockpiles. With conservative Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Kennedy is crafting an immigration bill that will include Bush initiatives to improve oversight and tighten student-visa laws.
Kennedy's dance with Bush didn't stop him from heading the opposition to Linda Chavez as Labor Secretary. But when the two disagree, the attacks never get personal. "We're working in good faith," Kennedy explains. That could be a formula for further success--for both the liberal senator and the conservative President. Given the concerns about the security of the U.S. Postal Service, lobbyists are being forced to get creative to put their message across. Take the National Association of Realtors. After compiling 35,000 letters of support for the NAR's push to derail a regulation that would enable big banks to enter real estate brokerage and property management, the NAR didn't drop the letters in the mail. Instead, NAR officials walked the letters over to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. On Capitol Hill, with offices shuttered by the anthrax scare, lobbyists are struggling to twist the arms of lawmakers who have had limited access to computers, phones, and faxes. Several groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tried sending mass e-mails to members' BlackBerries. But they found that lawmakers aren't using the gadgets. "You can't phone 'em, you can't mail 'em, you can't fax 'em," gripes Chamber lobbyist R. Bruce Josten. "It's a bitch." The solution: old-fashioned button-holing. Beware lawmakers who add the word "terror" to any funding request. One costly example: Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) wants to amend the farm bill with an "agro-terrorism" measure. It would mandate spending $4 billion to increase security at Agriculture Dept. laboratories. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) warns that if the farm bill isn't passed this year, the worsening budget outlook could reduce the $167 billion in aid farmers are expecting.