WASHINGTON — Weak leadership, resentment among lawmakers, partisan wrangling and timidity about casting risky votes could prevent an immigration overhaul for “another 45 years,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy predicted two years before he died in 2009.
A caustic account of the failure of an immigration bill in 2007 is one of the highlights of 19 Kennedy interviews released Wednesday.
Those interviews, along with 170 more with colleagues, aides and others about his 46-year career, were conducted by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and they were posted online by the Miller Center and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate in Boston.
Another point of interest concerns the 1968 presidential race. After Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, powerful Democrats urged the last brother to seek the nomination himself.
In the past, Kennedy said he had rejected those pleas because he was not ready for the impact of a race on himself and his grief-stricken family. But in a 2005 interview, he said he had also rejected last-minute appeals from the convention because if he ran and lost, he might be obliged to accept the nomination for vice president, a position that would marginalize him.
The 694 pages of transcripts contain few revelations but offer detailed accounts of how legislative fights were won or lost, interspersed with arguments for a strong, assertive role for the Senate.
Ten more interviews with the senator were not released because “they are still being processed,” said Daniel Reilly, director of communications at the Kennedy Institute. “All of the transcripts will be released at some future date,” he added, saying the bulk of the withheld material related to Kennedy’s early childhood.
But one of the withheld transcripts dealt with the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in a car Kennedy drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969. James Sterling Young, the professor of government and foreign affairs who led the oral history project and conducted the Kennedy interviews, said in 2009 that one interview dealt with Chappaquiddick. Young died in 2013.
Some of the most compelling accounts describe how Kennedy’s personal experiences led to his long-term interest in health care, Northern Ireland and immigration.
One recurring theme is Kennedy’s belief that the Senate in the 21st century was not working hard enough to solve major national problems, continually limiting debate and amendments or avoiding issues entirely if passage could not be guaranteed in advance. When he was elected in 1962, he said, the Senate would be busy five days a week and stay on a bill as long as it took to pass it or defeat it.
In particular, he cited the failure of the 2007 immigration bill, which died after only 46 senators, well short of the required 60, voted to curtail debate. (In 2013, the Senate passed a similar measure, but the House never voted on it.)
Kennedy did not place as much blame on Republican opponents as on the majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, saying he was “never really interested in it until the very end, and at the very end it was too late.”
He said Reid had been in too much of a hurry and had failed to grasp the “chemical” nature of the Senate, which requires letting members offer amendments to feel that they have a stake in a controversial bill. Instead, by limiting amendments, he said, Reid “went out to manufacture a situation that would antagonize Republicans,” showing more interest in blaming Republicans for the failure than in passing the bill.
Kristen Orthman, Reid’s press secretary, responded by saying that in 2007, “after 30 amendment votes, it became clear that there would not be enough Republican support to pass the bill.” She said that Reid kept on fighting and that the Senate passed a “comprehensive” immigration bill in 2013. She added, “Sadly, now, as in the past, Republicans are blocking immigration reform from becoming law.”
Although the 19 interviews of Kennedy do not focus on his brothers and barely mention his parents, it is clear that family experiences stimulated some legislative priorities.
Kennedy traced his lasting interest in immigration back to walks he took in Boston with his grandfather John F. Fitzgerald, a former Boston mayor. He said that as they walked, Fitzgerald would talk about the history of ethnic neighborhoods and describe discrimination faced by immigrants. Decades later, Kennedy kept a vintage “No Irish Need Apply” sign in his Senate office.
Before John F. Kennedy won the presidency, he wrote a book denouncing current immigration preferences as “indefensible.” Edward Kennedy took on the family cause in 1965. He described the first time he managed a bill on the Senate floor, the 1965 measure that ended country of origin quotas and spurred immigration from Southern Europe, Asia and Africa.
Similarly, in a 2008 interview, Kennedy spoke of how his family’s medical problems — from his father’s 1961 stroke to his own broken back in a 1964 plane crash to his son Teddy’s bone cancer, which caused him to have his leg amputated — made the health issue and the goal of national health insurance “a central force in my life.”
For the Kennedy family, “financial security was always present” during these crises. But when Teddy was receiving follow-up chemotherapy, costing $2,700 per session, Kennedy saw the issue in stark moral terms. He met other parents “in the waiting room — they had sold their house for $20,000 or $30,000, or mortgaged it completely, eating up all their savings, and they could only fund their treatment for six months, or eight months, or a year — and they were asking the doctor what chance their child had if they could only do half the treatment. Did they have a 50 percent chance of survival?”
While the 19 Kennedy interviews do not dwell on his ability to find Republican allies on major bills, a 2006 interview with former Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming reflects the respect Republicans held for him.
Simpson, a friend who was sometimes a legislative ally and sometimes a foe, called Kennedy a “master legislator.” He said that once Kennedy abandoned hope of the presidency, “he then decided that he would be the best damned legislator that he could be, and he is that today.”
Simpson said that most Senate Republicans, if promised anonymity, would agree that Kennedy was “the best legislator on the floor of the U.S. Senate.”