Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Environmental Protection Administration, is an eight-year incumbent who believes she owes a debt to Massachusetts's senior Senator. "Kennedy," she says, "was an enormous help in getting me elected to the Senate." Her committee controls the money for environmental projects such as the one under way in Boston Harbor.
But it is Kennedy's chairmanship of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, according to Kerry, that makes him the most powerful member of the Senate. "Almost half of the US budget goes through that committee," Kerry says. "If it isn't that he's directing it here, he has the leverage to get other things done for here. What he can do to help other people in other parts of the country helps him with those sectors that he might have leverage on."
"The loss of Kennedy," adds Moakley, "would be devastating to this state's economy."
It would be simplistic, thought, to attribute Kennedy's success to mere clout. South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, 91, has clout, thanks to his 40-year seniority in the Senate. But though Thurmond is a former Democrat, he and other senior senators lack a talent that Kennedy has: the ability to reach across the aisle and build bipartisan coalitions.
Kennedy's colleagues praise his ability to forge majorities with Republican senators to pass legislation. "His personality bridges the gaps between ideologies," says Moakley.
Kennedy's critics, too, cite his ability to work with adversaries, but to them those skills are a source of frustration. "Certainly he's had a good relationship with Orrin Hatch [R-Utah], which has allowed him to do bipartisan bills," says David Boaz, director of the Cato Institute, a conservative-libertarian think tank in Washington. "From my perspective, it's not a good thing that he has developed that relationship. The cooperation that has resulted has led to bills that reflect Ted Kennedy's ideology."
Gripes conservative activist Flaherty: "There are Republicans running around who claim they're personally friendly with Kennedy." Flaherty, a Virginian who is currently working to elect Oliver North to the Senate, hopes for a conservative revolt at the polls this year. As he sees it, thought, Kennedy's near hypnotic ways are rolling even his current Republican opponent. Noting that Romney has moved leftward on social issues and has recently come out for increasing the minimum wage, Flaherty laments, "Unfortunately, now even Romney has adopted Kennedy-like positions, so in Massachusetts it's harder to detect a revolt." (Kennedy joked about Romney last week, "In two weeks he'll be voting for me.")
"Perhaps the greatest contradiction is the public impression of him as a partisan figure," Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, of Maine, told the Phoenix. "That's directly contradicted by his performance in office. As chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, he has produced a very significant number of major bills in a bipartisan way. He's commanded huge majorities in the Senate. He truly is one of the most effective legislators, certainly in recent history, and probably in the Senate's history."
Kennedy, according to Mitchell, works hard at mastering the subject of whatever legislation he's promoting. "When he manages a bill on the Senate floor he knows every detail, every number, every date, and the reasons why they're in the bill. That sounds obvious, but that's not always the case here. He has a good sense of timing and judgment about when to make a compromise, and how much to compromise."