“The Passing Of A Progressive Champion”
August 28, 2009, 1:00am

The Passing Of A Progressive ChampionThe Progress Report has produced a video tribute to Sen. Kennedy. Watch it here: http://thinkprogress.org/2009/08/26/kennedy-tribute/

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a “stalwart” of the Senate and a “liberal lion” who spent nearly half a century advancing progressive causes, died in his Massachusetts home late Tuesday night. While his death leaves a “leadership gap” in the Senate, Kennedy left behind a strong progressive legacy that has forever changed the American landscape. “Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time,” President Obama said in a statement. “His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives — in seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education’s promise, and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just — including myself,” the president said. Kennedy also strove for bipartisan consensus to advance progressive legislation. “The hallmark of his legislative success,” writes the New York Times, “was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed.” “I never saw anybody he couldn’t work with,” said former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson. Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said of Kennedy yesterday on MSNBC, “Here’s a guy of great privilege, great wealth. He could have just retired to Hyannisport, or any place in the world, for that matter. But for all the privilege that he had, he really did identify with the underclass and with the working class. And he never gave up the fight for them.”

‘THE CAUSE OF MY LIFE’: “We must begin to move now to establish a comprehensive national health insurance program, capable of bringing the same amount and high quality of health care to every man, woman, and child in the United States,” Kennedy said in 1969. He subsequently made, in his words, expanding quality health care and health insurance to all Americans “the cause of my life.” In 1971, Kennedy led the charge to quadruple the amount of money the federal government spent to fight cancer with the Federal Cancer Research Program. In 1985, he led the fight to enact the provisions in the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), giving workers the right to temporarily continue their employer health coverage when they lose their jobs. Ten years later, he and then-Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (KS) sponsored a bill expanding on COBRA, allowing millions to keep their insurance when changing jobs, are self-employed, or have pre-existing conditions. In 1997, Kennedy teamed up with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to pass the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) which greatly expanded health care insurance for children in lower-income families. Congress reauthorized and expanded the program this year allowing SCHIP to cover more than 11 million children throughout the country. Kennedy also worked to expand health coverage to those with disabilities and worked with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in 2006 to expand Medicaid coverage to children with special needs. In 1990, Kennedy and Hatch sponsored the Ryan White Care Act, “the largest Federal program focused exclusively on HIV/AIDS care” which provides “for those who do not have sufficient health care coverage or financial resources for coping with HIV disease.” Kennedy also championed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family emergences or the birth of a child. And as part of the current push to reform health insurance, on July 15, Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a health care reform bill with a public option that is necessary to expand coverage and bring down health care costs.

‘HE CREATED AMERICANS’: Beyond his extraordinary work on health care, Kennedy, as Brokaw said, “never gave up the fight” for those without privilege. “He fashioned the modern-day legal system of immigration, …created humane refugee and asylum policies,” and “laid the groundwork” for a comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass, said immigrant rights advocate Frank Sharry. Kennedy is best known for working with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on an immigration reform bill out of the Senate in 2006 and in leading the charge for reform again in 2007 on a bill that ultimately died in the Senate due to a right-wing backlash. But the Massachusetts senator had a long history of helping overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. In 1965, Kennedy led the charge to eradicate ethnically-biased immigration quotas that made it nearly impossible for anyone other than Western Europeans to emigrate to the US. The 1980 Refugee Act he helped pass brought “U.S. law into compliance with the requirements of international law.” He fought against draconian provisions in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Kennedy also co-sponsored numerous other bills that would make important reforms to the immigration system including the Dream Act and AgJobs legislation. “He created Americans,” the Daily Kos’ Dana Houle said. “We will endure today’s loss and begin anew to build the kinds of tough, fair, and practical reform worthy of our shared history as immigrants and as Americans,” Kennedy said in 2007 when immigration reform failed, adding, “Immigration reforms are always controversial. But Congress was created to muster political will to answer such challenges. Today we didn’t, but tomorrow we will.”

PROGRESSIVISM AND CIVIL RIGHTS: Kennedy stamped his legacy on the U.S. Senate by advancing other progressive and civil rights causes. In 1964, Kennedy spoke on the floor, urging the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “We should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, but conditions of freedom that lead to peace,” he said. During his career, Kennedy “led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation.” Kennedy played a pivotal role in Voting Rights Act renewals and the Fair Housing law of 1968. Kennedy was also a champion of gay rights. He consistently stayed committed to marriage equality and voted against the anti-gay 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Kennedy also co-sponsored the transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act that was introduced in the Senate on Aug. 5, “marking the first time ever that a trans-inclusive bill has been considered in that chamber of Congress.” “On the issue of gay rights, I continue to strongly support civil marriage,” Kennedy said in 2005. “It is wrong for our civil laws to deny any American the basic right to be part of a family, to have loved ones with whom to build a future and share life’s joys and tears, and to be free from the stain of bigotry and discrimination.” But Kennedy’s progressive legacy included international issues as well. In 1985, he pushed for sanctions against South Africa because of apartheid; he received an honorary knighthood for his role in brokering peace in Northern Ireland; and he vigorously spoke out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Kennedy called his vote against authorizing the invasion “the best vote I’ve made in my 44 years in the U.S. Senate.”