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60th Anniversary Event: Working Across the Aisle

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Tuesday, September 13, 2022, 12:00 - 1:00 PM

On Tuesday, September 13th, 2022, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate hosted a virtual conversation highlighting Senator Kennedy’s unique approaches to serving his constituents and his nation with the help of bipartisanship and consensus building.

In Working Across the Aisle, we were joined by key members of Senator Kennedy’s former staff as well as political collaborators across the aisle in the Senate to discuss how Senator Kennedy used the tactics of bipartisanship and goal-oriented strategy to push forward public policy. Moderated by Bob Shrum, Director of the USC Center for the Political Future and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics who served as Senator Kennedy’s speechwriter, press secretary, and political strategist, the panel included Melody Barnes, Executive Director of the UVA Karsh Center of Democracy and Senator Kennedy’s former chief counsel on Judiciary Committee; Patricia Knight, Owner of Knight Capitol Consultants and former Chief of Staff to Senator Orrin Hatch; Michael Myers, former Managing Director of Policy, the Rockefeller Foundation and Senator Kennedy’s former chief counsel and staff director; and Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY).

The virtual program included historical context and first-person accounts reflecting on Senator Kennedy’s accomplishments as the fifth-longest continuously serving member of the United States Senate. In remembering Senator Kennedy’s work and relationship with Senator Ronald Reagan, Senator Alan Simpson said, “They were both public servants, and they wanted to get something done. They knew that if they found places where they could agree, they could move the ball forward. That’s what our system of government should do, and [it] gave them opportunity to find common ground.”

Barnes remembered the Senator’s legacy of bipartisanship through a memory of the passing of Senator Kennedy: “When the Senator died, we all received these beautiful bound volumes that had statements from Senators. I read Lindsey Grahams statements, and he said that he enjoyed going toe-to-toe with Senator Kennedy. He said ‘What’s missing today is the spirit of Ted Kennedy, and standing up for what you believe in, but also working across the aisle… to move forward for the good of the country’.”

“Bipartisanship isn’t for sissies. You go toe-to-toe, and just because you’re coming together to get something done doesn’t mean you put aside your beliefs,” said Michael Myers. “You don’t get all of what you want to get at the beginning, but you reach that compromise to make progress on what you believe in. Senator Kennedy did this in a variety of ways.”

Patricia Knight, former Chief of Staff to Senator Orrin Hatch, remembered the work the two Senators did together on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) bill: “Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch had the idea to break it up into a few bills. We were very careful to get a lot of cosponsors on the legislation. That was part of our strategy: to keep pushing with this cadre of centrists that wanted to advance the issue.”

“I watched Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch,” said Barnes. “And underlying all their work were these relationships. Senator Kennedy spoke of the time these people spent together. Not on the floor, but together. When that happens, you don’t ‘Other’ them.”

A number of personal anecdotes were shared on the panel, including one from Senator Simpson regarding his father’s introduction to Senator Kennedy: “My father joked, ‘I didn’t agree with him, but he’s caused his mother has much pain as you’ve caused your mother.’ And when Dad came back, he had Parkinson’s [disease], and when I brought him back in ’79, the first guy in the door was Kennedy. There was no fake to it.”

Myers told a story on immigration refugee legislation between fellow panelist Senator Alan Simpson and Senator Kennedy: “When we learned that Senator Simpson blocked the bill, we felt betrayed. And Senator Kennedy went into Simpson’s office, I thought Kennedy would lay into him and let him have it, but what he said was, ‘I won’t vote for this bill if you don’t.’ And that brought them back together. They had developed a friendship, and trust. And with that promise, Senator Simpson allowed the bill to go forward.”

The conversation then shifted to the modern-day challenges to bipartisanship: “Nowadays you see a D or an R behind a person’s name and you say ‘I hate that guy.’ The venom is there, and its vicious. It’s not about disappointment or disgust, it’s about pure hatred,” said Senator Simpson.

Shrum asks the panelists about the challenges to bipartisanship and how it effects building personal relationships.

“It has to come from the top. The staff changes so much, and they go downtown, or they leave the Hill, so it’s important for the Members to place a priority on maintaining those relationships,” said Knight. “I know many of the Kennedy staff [members] remain friends to this day. We formed that bond because we saw our bosses were forming that bond. I don’t think members of Congress encourage that anymore.”

On how to move closer to bipartisanship in the current climate, Barnes said, “Ultimately, the decision gets made at the ballot box. It is the beauty and challenge of democracy – we citizens get to make a choice as to whether we want to continue down this path, or we want to break the fever.”

Myers remembered a quotation from Senator Simpson: You can learn to compromise without compromising yourself. “And I’ve embraced that as a mantra,” said Myers.

The celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Senator Kennedy’s legacy continues on September 20, 2022 at 1:00pm with “Balancing Powers,” and examination on how Senator Kennedy drew upon his influence and collaborations with 10 presidential administrations to achieve great policy strides, and his work as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee to help shape the U.S. Courts. Learn more and register here.

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