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Tree planting at US Capitol pays tribute to former House speaker Tip O’Neill

WASHINGTON -- A leafless pin oak, its trunk still the girth of a wrist, took its place among a garden of giants on the Capitol grounds on Wednesday as tribute to former House speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, a towering figure in the political landscape here and in the Bay State.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, her chamber’s first female House speaker, presided over a tree-planting ceremony that praised O’Neill for being a “bonafide American hero.”

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O’Neill, who ran the House for a decade ending in 1987, would have reached his centennial birthday next month.

Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville spoke affectionately of O’Neill. “He never forgot who he represented,” said Capuano, who represents many of the same communities as O’Neill had.

Representative Edward Markey of Malden, the dean of the Bay State delegation, recalled how his very first vote in Congress was to confirm O’Neill as speaker.

Most of all, O’Neill was remembered for his ability to work with members from both sides of the aisle, an ability many suggested was a much-needed quality in this era of hyperpartisanship.

Amid the ongoing rancor over budgets and taxes, both sides are digging in for what could be a grueling battle over averting a so-called fiscal cliff -- the near-simultaneous occurrence of automatic budget cuts and tax increases that some economists say could trigger another recession.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are under pressure to come up with a deal -- as were President Reagan and O’Neill in 1986, when Democrats and Republicans were wrangling over rewriting the country’s tax code. In the end, the Reagan and O’Neill forged a pact that reduced the top tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent and eliminated a host of tax loopholes.

Some Democrats consider O’Neill a legend, an old school politician who knew how to deal.

O’Neill’s tree takes its place in the shadows of those honoring other speakers, including Joseph Cannon of Illinois, Sam Rayburn of Texas, and John McCormack of Massachusetts, who served as speaker in the 1960s.

“He loved this place,” said O’Neill’s son, Kip, one of several family members attending the ceremony, along with a contingent of the Massachusetts delegation and high-ranking Democrats. President Obama’s chief of staff, Jack Lew, traveled from the White House to attend. Lew served as a policy adviser to O’Neill.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.
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