BOSTON– President Barack Obama may not always get along with the Senate — particularly when it’s under Republican control — but on Monday he nonetheless planned to formally dedicate an institute devoted to the legislative body and one of its legendary occupants.
Obama and the First Lady, along with Vice President Joe Biden, were all headed to the Boston waterfront site of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where they’ll participate in the official opening of the $78 million museum whose centerpiece is a life-size replica of the Senate chamber.
The institute — more than a decade in the making and meant as a monument both to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and the body in which he served — is being dedicated at a moment when public opinion of Congress sinks to new depths. Organizers hope the museum will teach visiting students how the Senate works, thereby stoking interest in government and civics.
Kennedy, known as the “lion of the Senate” and the last of the country’s most famous political family to serve in the upper chamber (for now), was renowned for his ability to broker deals with Republicans on tough issues, even as one of the most liberal members in the legislative body.
He served for nearly half-a-century, at one point becoming the fourth longest-serving senator in history. His colleague for three of those years was then-Sen. Obama, who worked alongside Kennedy on the chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.
Kennedy’s crucial endorsement of Obama’s presidential bid in 2008, which came as the Democratic primary battle with Hillary Clinton was reaching its nastiest, gave Obama establishment backing against a rival with much of the party support behind her.
The ties between the two men went beyond politics: upon arriving at the White House in 2009, Obama hung a seascape Kennedy had painted in his private study off the Oval Office. Months later, after Obama’s Election Night vow to get his two young daughters a puppy, Kennedy delivered as a gift a Portuguese Water Dog — and took one of the dog’s litter mates as his own pet. He even sent the First Canine, Bo, to his preferred trainer in Virginia.
When Kennedy died seven months into Obama’s first term, the President delivered a deeply personal eulogy at a Boston funeral service that attracted hundreds of mourners, including four of the five living U.S. presidents.
Kennedy, Obama said then, was the “soul of the Democratic Party” who had used his friendships and connections to advance an agenda that wasn’t strictly partisan.
“While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a partisan lightning rod, that’s not the prism through which Ted Kennedy saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw Ted Kennedy,” Obama said, calling the late Senator “the greatest legislator of our time.”
“He did it by hewing to principle, yes, but also by seeking compromise and common cause — not through deal-making and horse-trading alone, but through friendship, and kindness, and humor,” Obama said.
Obama’s critics have accused him of eschewing that type of friendship-building on Capitol Hill they argue is necessary for success in Washington.
The Republican-controlled Senate, only three months old, has already caused Obama headaches by refusing to bring the President’s nominee for Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, up for a vote. Democrats in the chamber are stalling on his preferred Medicare reform plan. And neither party appears willing to go forward with a war powers resolution he drafted for going after ISIS.
Those issues, however, don’t appear likely to diminish Obama’s praise for Kennedy during Monday’s ceremony, which is also set to feature members of the Kennedy family and former Senate colleagues of the late Democrat.
Included among the bipartisan list of speakers for Monday’s program are Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and former Senators Tom Daschle and Trent Lott.
Kennedy’s longtime Senate colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, was meant to attend the ceremony but was forced to cancel as nuclear talks continue with Iran in Switzerland.