The Republican leader of the Senate told a crowd gathered on Sunday at the institute honoring one of the chamber’s most liberal members that the late Edward M. Kennedy’s skills as a legislator are the kind needed to help the fractious body learn to once again cooperate.
Majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Kennedy was someone who could separate the personal from the political and who stayed true to his word. Those are characteristics that will help the body function better in the future, and there are already signs of progress, McConnell said.
“A real sense of renewal is taking hold in the Senate,” McConnell told a crowd of about 200 people gathered at the first lecture in a series titled “Getting to the Point” at the newly opened Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which sits on Columbia Point in Dorchester next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
McConnell, first elected to the Senate in 1984, spoke from a podium that looks much like the one in the Senate chamber in Washington. The Kennedy Institute features a replica of the chamber, and audience members Sunday filled the seats and balcony.
The audience included Stanley Rosenberg, the Massachusetts Senate president and an Amherst Democrat; Paul Kirk, who filled Kennedy’s Senate seat for a year after the senator’s death in 2009; and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
McConnell spent eight years as the minority leader before his party took control of the chamber in November’s midterm elections, and he has pledged to help the Senate become more functional after years of partisan gridlock.
McConnell said he believes several bills being worked on in the Senate will pass with bipartisan support as tensions ease and parties cooperate, including a bill on cybersecurity and an update of the No Child Left Behind law.
McConnell said that as majority leader he is giving more power back to committees, so senators feel a sense of ownership for bills that emerge from those subgroups. He said he also plans to encourage more debate on the Senate floor and to allow senators to offer more amendments.
“In the Senate, everybody matters,” McConnell said.
He mentioned the recently passed budget and the robust debate in January about the Keystone XL pipeline as examples of his efforts, calling the Keystone debate a “tutorial” in how the Senate should function, even though President Obama vetoed the bill.
The Senate leader said the chamber’s legislative process is deliberately tedious but should give senators more of a sense of ownership than has been present in recent years when Democrats have been in control.
“The Senate, when it functions correctly, is slow,” he said.
Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wife of Edward Kennedy and president of the institute’s board of directors, introduced McConnell and told a story about the time in 2006 when her husband spoke at the University of Louisville at McConnell’s request.
Kennedy said it was important to have McConnell as the first speaker in the lecture series because he is the Senate leader.
“We have great personal history so we’re honored by his presence here,” she said.
McConnell began his remarks by telling stories about Kennedy, who kept his Senate seat in the back of the chamber despite his seniority, and about his famous dogs, which once occupied offices near those where McConnell worked.
“If the wind is blowing the right way, you can still catch a whiff of Portuguese water dog,” McConnell said.