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Chapter 6: Master of the Senate

A towering record, painstakingly built

Senator mastered the arts of gesture, compromise

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By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / February 20, 2009
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WASHINGTON — Ted Kennedy had a long list of bills that he wanted to get through the Senate, and he had spent decades mastering the multilayered negotiating tactics needed to turn them into laws.

His high-powered staff, by the late 1990s, had become the body's chief engine of legislation. It was like a school of government whose graduates included corporate leaders, senior White House aides, and a future Supreme Court justice, Stephen Breyer.

And by the start of 1997, Kennedy saw a chance to get Senate approval for one of his cherished goals: a new children's healthcare program, funded by a hefty hike in the tobacco tax.

As his colleagues almost unanimously conceded, he knew the Senate better than anyone else. It was a club, and he functioned as a kind of membership chairman, bestowing little kindnesses on his colleagues and keeping track of each member's personal interests.

It was hard and often tedious work, but it suited his outgoing personality — and his utter determination to expand healthcare and education.

For the children's healthcare program, he knew he needed his longtime friend and conservative colleague Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Hatch, a devout Mormon with a manner as proper and dignified as Kennedy's was florid and chummy, was concerned about children's health and abhorred smoking. But Kennedy sensed his conservative counterpart was also nervous about the idea of a tax hike and afraid the plan would give too much power to the federal government.

Words were not closing the deal. So Kennedy turned to song, corralling his chief of staff, Nick Littlefield, an accomplished singer, to learn some of the ultrapatriotic songs Hatch had written and then indulge Hatch's off-duty passion for music by performing them.

As a surprise, Kennedy and Littlefield made the trek to Hatch's office — unusual for the protocol-sensitive Senate, where normally the more junior member would make the trip through the Capitol's tunnels — and Littlefield serenaded the Utah Republican with one of Hatch's signature tunes, "Freedom's Light."

Hatch was impressed. "He can really belt out a song," Hatch says of Littlefield, adding, "It's one of [Kennedy's] ways of trying to placate me."

The song broke the tension in negotiations. Still, Kennedy kept up the pressure. He invited Hatch to dinner at his nine-bedroom estate in McLean, Va., a tactic that had disarmed and intimidated policymakers in the past.

The two senators shared a leisurely meal with Kennedy's wife, Vicki, who is also close to Hatch. By the end of the evening — which a charmed Hatch told Kennedy was one of the loveliest he'd ever spent — Hatch was sold, agreeing to Kennedy's $20 billion price tag, including an extra billion dollars that Vicki had suggested at the close of the evening.

In return, Kennedy worked with Hatch to find mutually acceptable terms for how the money should be spent.

Unexpected courtesies, friendships, singing — all can move mountains in the 19th-century club known as the United States Senate. And Ted Kennedy, by the end of the 20th century, had learned to move mountains.

The fine art of the compromise
The battle over the children's health initiative known as SCHIP defined the manner of persuasion that Kennedy had refined over the decades.

He was, by the '90s, well aware of the power of his celebrity, impressing policy advocates and opponents alike by inviting them to his home, and showing junior members of the Senate around his Capitol hideaway office with its oil portrait of his grandfather Honey Fitz and the desk his father, Joe Sr., had used as ambassador to the Court of St. James.

He was especially generous in sharing credit for legislation, unusual in the often competitive Senate. On a sweeping Patients' Bill of Rights package, for instance, Kennedy "wanted [GOP Senator John] McCain's name to be first, mine second, and his third," remembers John Edwards, who at the time was a junior North Carolina senator.

Kennedy also made a point of phoning his colleagues and their family members at times of personal crisis, a gesture made even more powerful by the implicit reminder of the tragedies Kennedy himself had endured. He was among the first to call when the son of Oregon's Republican senator Gordon Smith committed suicide. He stood by West Virginia's fragile and elderly Democrat Robert Byrd when he lost his beloved wife of 68 years, Erma. Asked for advice on bone cancer treatment for the nephew of Ohio Republican George Voinovich, Kennedy delivered — along with a personal call and painting to the ailing nephew.

But perhaps most important, Kennedy understood the art of compromise and the value of incremental progress.

"He realized he would have to win small battles, to try to piece together some sort of plan or goal," says Senate majority whip Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has worked with Kennedy on a range of issues.

"I can't imagine how many thousands of compromises [he's made], or how many times his heart has been broken" trying to get his colleagues on board for the raft of education, health, and civil rights legislation he has shepherded throughout the years, Durbin adds. "He tried to put together not all that he wanted, but what he could get."

It was a lesson Kennedy learned the hard way. In 1971, President Nixon unveiled a plan to expand healthcare to nearly all Americans through their employers, with the federal government subsidizing insurance premiums for the poor. The plan was strikingly similar to many that Democrats would put forth in subsequent years. But in the early 1970s, the then 39-year-old senator from Massachusetts wanted more. He stubbornly held out for a straight up national healthcare system paid for through general revenues and Social Security taxes.

"It's really a partnership between the administration and insurance companies," Kennedy griped in 1971 about the Nixon plan. "It's not a partnership between patients and doctors of this nation."

In the end, neither the Nixon plan nor the Kennedy proposal passed, and Kennedy would wonder, decades later, if he had missed his only chance to install a plan — even an imperfect one — that would give every American the chance to get health insurance.

"We should have jumped on that," Kennedy said.

A defining issue
He would apply that lesson to a wide range of issues since Nixon's health plan was introduced. From immigration to housing discrimination, from rights for the disabled to providing more help to poor children and struggling college hopefuls, Kennedy adopted the long view, slowly wearing down the opposition until he got part of what he wanted.

Then, he'd come right back with a new proposal to get a bit closer to his ultimate goal.

The determination impressed — and sometimes exasperated — his colleagues. Representative George Miller of California, who worked with Kennedy to increase the minimum wage in 2007 — an effort 10 years in the making — recalls Kennedy's response during a jubilant rally to celebrate the House's passage of the bill. Kennedy gave a rousing speech near the Russell Senate Office Building to thank supporters.

Still clapping his raised hands, Kennedy leaned over to Miller. "I'm introducing a new bill to increase the minimum wage again," he said, Miller recalls. When an incredulous Miller noted that they hadn't even finished celebrating the latest wage hike, Kennedy replied, "I know, but we've got to move on this."

The signature relentlessness has paid off for Kennedy, whom colleagues in both parties describe as the most effective modern member of the Senate, and whom historians measure against a handful of the most effective senators in history.

Kennedy's office has written about 2,500 bills, and more than 300 have become law. In addition, more than 550 bills Kennedy has cosponsored since 1973 — the first year Senate records showed lists of cosponsors — have been enacted.

Much of that hefty pile of legislation has involved healthcare, for which Kennedy has won, bit by bit, some of the elements of the sweeping national healthcare plan he has failed to accomplish in one omnibus program.

The list of healthcare programs Kennedy has pushed forward reads like alphabet soup.

In 1972, he was a chief architect of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides food assistance and access to health services for low-income women and their children. That was followed by SCHIP in 1997, and in 2006, Kennedy further extended federal assistance for children's health, working with Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa to pass the Family Opportunity Act, which expanded Medicaid coverage for children with special needs.

The 1985 COBRA law allowed workers to continue their health insurance while between jobs. Kennedy followed that in 1996 with HIPAA, which limited the ability of insurance companies to use preexisting conditions to deny coverage for patients. Later, Kennedy came in with a Mental Health Parity law to thwart insurance industry efforts to limit lifetime coverage of mental health conditions.

Kennedy's accomplishments in healthcare have been outweighed, in his mind, by failures to secure approval for larger, broader-based health bills. The Clinton healthcare plan of 1994 — which Kennedy had worked to pass despite not having been closely involved in its writing — fell flat, spooking Democrats away from healthcare proposals for years afterward. The 2001 Patients' Bill of Rights, which Kennedy had so painstakingly negotiated, lost momentum after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Kennedy's Medicare prescription drug plan of 2003 was so rewritten by Republicans that he ended up voting against it — though some of his closest allies believe it was still a great victory.

"I think the lesson he learned from the Nixon era is a lesson that history teaches us: You should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," said Bill Novelli, chief executive of the American Association of Retired Persons, which broke with Kennedy to endorse the final bill. "The Medicare Modernization Act was certainly not perfect, but the idea was, get it done and improve it over the coming years."

Partnership trumps partisanship
Orrin Hatch despised Kennedy long before he loved him. A Pittsburgh-born lawyer who put himself through school before settling with his wife and six children in Salt Lake City, Hatch had never intended to go into politics, and waited until the last day to file for the US Senate race in Utah in 1976.

And the former Mormon missionary says he had a single goal in entering Washington politics — "to fight Ted Kennedy." To be clear, Hatch notes, it was not to fight the Democrats, or control government spending, or advance a social agenda consistent with Hatch's abstemious ways. This was personal. Kennedy was the target, and Hatch thought he was the person who could bring down the Senate's most vocal emblem of East Coast liberalism.

But when Hatch in 1981 assumed the chairmanship of what was then called the Labor Committee — an excellent venue for a conservative mission — he quickly identified a major hurdle: two Republicans on the panel were left-leaning, meaning Hatch did not have a true majority.

So Hatch went to Kennedy, asking for his help, and got it, although Kennedy said he would not be willing to team up on legislation opposed by labor unions. But they would find common ground on other bills aimed at helping workers, and soon Hatch and Kennedy were working together on some of the most significant public-health legislation of the era.

Hatch's decision to work with Kennedy has baffled many in the GOP.

"A lot of them tend to get pretty upset with me," Hatch concedes. The political partnership grew over time into more than a working relationship. In the odd way that opposites sometimes attract each other, Kennedy and Hatch formed a mutually reinforcing alliance, alerting each other to excesses in the other's personality. Far from fighting Ted Kennedy, Hatch was now enabling his agenda and standing by him as a friend through difficult times.

"A lot of my memories of this are when Kennedy was footloose and doing a lot of crazy things, mostly with Chris Dodd, and Hatch was always the straitlaced guy," says Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. "There were all these jokes back and forth, Hatch telling him he should straighten up, Teddy telling him he should loosen up."

Hatch and Kennedy's partnership reached a pivotal moment with the 1995 debate over the extension of what was tagged the Ryan White bill, an emergency relief plan to help the top 13 US cities hit by the AIDS crisis.

Former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms — nicknamed "Senator No" for his obstruction of liberal initiatives — put forward a politically troublesome amendment insisting that none of the AIDS money could be used to advance homosexuality. The amendment could have limited cities' ability to reach into the gay community to promote condom use and other ways to prevent the spread of the disease.

But politically, it was an ingenious move, Hatch says, because many Democratic senators harbored presidential ambitions and didn't want to be accused of endorsing gay promiscuity, especially in relation to the spread of AIDS.

Kennedy thundered against Helms on the Senate floor, his decibel level rising. But he was getting nowhere. Then Hatch took on Helms.

"I stood up and said 'Senator, I know you're sincere. But this is not a gay rights bill. This is a public health bill,' " Hatch says. His move gave Democrats and Republicans the cover necessary to oppose Helms.

"That was the end of the battle, and Helms knew it," Hatch says.

The reauthorization of the Ryan White Bill, named in the memory of a youngster who contracted the disease from a blood transfusion, went through. It was extended again in 2000, when Kennedy and others, including Hatch, secured $9 billion for the program. About half of the between 800,000 and 900,000 Americans living with AIDS now rely solely on Ryan White program funds to manage their disease.

The relationship between Kennedy and Hatch remained an elaborate dance even after decades of working together. "Ted, I love you like a brother," Hatch would start out saying. "I know you don't feel the same way about me." Kennedy professed his affections, the two would begin working on legislation — and then would fight mightily over the details.

Sometimes, Hatch says, when he believed Kennedy was being stubborn, he would pull out his own weapon: He would threaten to call Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Massachusetts lawmaker's sister and a good friend of Hatch's.

"I didn't do it very often, but I would use that," Hatch says. "He'd say, 'Oh no! Don't do that! We can work this out.' " If the septuagenarian Hatch called the octogenarian Shriver, she'd often call her brother and say, "Why are you being so mean to that nice young senator?"

Still, many of Hatch's fellow Republicans believe Kennedy has gotten the better end of the pairing — that Hatch has been seduced by Kennedy. Like many others, Hatch had imagined Kennedy to be an arrogant, entitled liberal, and yet he came to respect — and love — the deeply committed, uncensuring man that he came to know.

"He thought he had a strong enough personality and could bring Kennedy around," said the late Paul Weyrich, the conservative activist who was dismayed by the Kennedy-Hatch alliance. "I thought to myself, 'You fool.' You talk about ego. You really have to have an extraordinary ego to think that somebody as dogmatic as Kennedy is, and as important to the left in this country that he is, that he is somehow going to be changed because you are interacting with him."

Sugar, and a dose of vinegar
Kennedy was not always the humble colleague that he became by the 1990s. Though he had a reverence for the Senate and a talent for deal-making, he came to Washington with a bit of the brash, charismatic style borrowed from his brothers.

Other senators were skeptical of him, and some recall an early dressing-down by the lion of the Senate, Richard Russell of Georgia, a Southern Democrat so imposing that even Lyndon Johnson, in the White House, regarded Russell as a father figure.

Kennedy had been advised by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, to pay homage to Russell. So Kennedy trundled over to Russell's office and attempted to break the ice by telling him they had something in common: Both had been elected to the Senate in their early 30s.

Yes, Russell responded tartly. But before I got here, he told the young Kennedy, I had been governor of Georgia. Chastened, Kennedy finished the meeting and left.

"He was a bit green," former senator George McGovern, Democrat of South Dakota, recalls.

But over the decades, Kennedy learned not only how to win friends and stroke the necessary egos, he also learned how to use his gravitas as Russell did — to cast an aura and, if necessary, to dress down detractors.

Kennedy employed all his skills as he built support for the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that Kennedy considered one of the most important civil rights measures of his career.

Helping the disabled was a personal issue for Kennedy, who had a mentally disabled sister and a son who lost a leg to bone cancer. Kennedy wanted a law that would protect disabled Americans from job discrimination and guarantee them access to public facilities.

As close as the issue was to Kennedy's own heart, he asked Senator Harkin, who had a deaf brother, to take the lead — a gesture that Harkin says "was one of the most generous, kindest things anyone has ever done for me."

Meanwhile, Kennedy employed many of the strategies that had made him successful over the years: He found the best experts on the issue, hosted them at his home, and hashed out the language for the new law. He also identified his allies and his potential nemeses, quickly singling out former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, then chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush, as the bill's leading skeptic. Sununu was philosophically opposed to imposing costly new requirements on businesses.

Robert Burgdorf, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia who wrote the framework for the original bill, recalls a meeting at Kennedy's home in McLean when activists complained that the White House had been dragging its feet.

Kennedy nodded, picked up the phone, dialed some numbers, and quickly reached his target. "John! When can we expect a position from you?" Kennedy asked. A startled Sununu told him he would get one soon. "I felt it was that [call] that had broken the logjam," Burgdorf says.

But Sununu continued to fight, nitpicking at the legislation in Capitol negotiating sessions between senators and Cabinet secretaries. At one point, Sununu lost his temper at Bobby Silverstein, an aide to Harkin. A stunned Harkin tried to defend his staffer. But Kennedy got there first, leaping up, leaning over and slamming his open hand loudly onto the table, inches from Sununu.

"You want to yell at someone? You yell at me, Sununu! You don't yell at our staff. You don't treat our staff that way," a red-faced Kennedy shouted before the stunned group.

"I really thought [Kennedy] was going to punch him," Harkin recalls.

But the tactic worked.

"Kennedy ate his lunch," recalls Hatch, who was also there. Sununu backed down and agreed to a deal. Later, Kennedy chuckled at Sununu's worries that the measure had gone too far and would burden business. "If Sununu only knew what was in that bill," he'd be horrified, Kennedy told Hatch.

The flash of anger was rare for Kennedy, who more often tried to win over skeptics with sugar.

Once, on St. Patrick's Day, he brought shamrock-shaped, green-speckled sugar cookies — on a china plate — to the notoriously irascible Representative Bill Thomas, a California Republican who chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Kennedy knew all of his colleagues' temptations. In the case of former House Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks, the penchant was for cigars. In fact, it was rare to see the Texan without a cigar in his mouth.

In a last-ditch effort to get Brooks on board for an immigration bill in 1990, Kennedy located some high quality cigars, put them in a plain manila envelope, and went over to the House side of the Capitol to see Brooks. Arriving, he opened the envelope to give Brooks a peek inside, then put it on the table.

When negotiations were going Kennedy's way, he would nudge the envelope closer to the Judiciary chairman. And when Brooks balked, Kennedy pulled it back. A tickled Brooks ended up letting the immigration bill go forward.

Common ground with Bush
Kennedy's dealings with Hatch paved the way for another unlikely — and ultimately less-successful — cross-party relationship, this one with the man who came to the White House in 2001 after the most-disputed election in more than 100 years, George W. Bush.

Kennedy's party was still smarting over what they saw as a theft of the presidency, and Democrats were not eager to help Bush with major legislative accomplishments. But Kennedy — who had already succeeded in passing a litany of education programs from Head Start for prekindergarteners to the Direct Lending program for college students — saw in Bush a chance to accomplish a major reform of elementary and secondary education, an effort that would become No Child Left Behind.

Just weeks after Bush was inaugurated, Kennedy found himself at the White House, each man face to face with the figure the other man's party saw as a symbol for what was wrong with the opposition.

Kennedy had not even been invited to early meetings at Bush's Austin gubernatorial mansion before the inauguration, recalls Sandy Kress, Bush's chief education adviser at the time. The incoming White House did not believe Kennedy was a genuine reformer.

But Bush, after an initial wariness, realized that Kennedy could be a crucial ally in achieving what the self-styled "education president" wanted in the area of better-performing schools and students.

The new president invited Kennedy to the White House to see "Thirteen Days," a movie about John F. Kennedy's tackling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. White House reporters declared that Bush had won over the Senate's most intractable liberal with a signature "charm offensive."

In truth, Kennedy hated to see movies about his brothers. But he understood Bush's gesture for what it was — a sincere attempt to reach out.

Kennedy was surprised by the genuine passion and commitment Bush had for improving early education, Kress says, and the Bay State lawmaker was impressed when Bush gently suggested, after their first meeting, that Kennedy emphasize areas of agreement, rather than looming conflicts, when he faced the gaggle of reporters outside the White House.

And Bush was oddly deferential to Kennedy. Bush quickly assigned nicknames to Washington players — most of them undignified, such as dubbing former New Hampshire Representative Charlie Bass "Bassmaster," a reference to a stomach-churning "Saturday Night Live" sketch. But Kennedy was given a far more respectful moniker: "The Senator."

The Bush-Kennedy partnership paid off, with Kennedy persuading skeptical Democrats to go along with No Child Left Behind, and the Bush administration working a compliant GOP majority in Congress. The bill was signed into law in January of 2002, almost a year to the day since the two men met. But despite the bipartisan success, Kennedy's budding relationship with Bush would prove to be less stable — and less enduring — than his partnership with Hatch.

Kennedy grew increasingly annoyed with Bush for failing to fully fund the No Child Left Behind law, and he began to face criticism from fellow Democrats unhappy with the testing requirements. Some grumbled privately that Kennedy's love of the deal had obscured his better judgment.

The senator also faced wrath from a longtime ally, the National Education Association, whose members did not like the provisions in the law holding teachers accountable for student performance.

By 2003, Kennedy's office estimated that the Bush administration had short-changed the program by $9 billion — a big chunk of the $29.2 billion authorized for the program that year. Kennedy declared that he had been betrayed, saying Bush had looked him "straight in the eye" during negotiations and promised to fund it up to the ceiling Congress had approved.

The White House disagreed, arguing that the Bush administration was still spending record amounts of money on education at a time when the country was fighting wars on two fronts. The relationship between Kennedy and Bush would never be the same, and each man adopted a more predictably wary stance around the other.

Kennedy would try again with the Bush administration on a Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003. Horrified by stories of seniors who had to choose between food and medicine because of the high costs of prescription drugs, Kennedy sought to expand Medicare to include drug coverage.

Again, Democrats were wary. Three years after the disputed and bitter 2000 presidential election — and gearing up for a rematch — they didn't want to hand the president a campaign advantage among seniors. Most Democrats also thought the benefit was inadequate.

Kennedy agreed — but didn't want to miss an opportunity. Not for years — even decades, Kennedy told colleagues privately — would a president be willing to throw $400 billion out for a new entitlement program. Yes, the benefit was flawed, but it could always be fixed later.

After continued wheedling, the Massachusetts senator won — and then lost, as Republicans rewrote the bill to discourage seniors from enrolling in Medicare and steering them toward private plans. Fearing that the bill would undermine Medicare, Kennedy spoke mightily against the measure on the Senate floor, but it passed in December of 2003.

It was, Kennedy would say afterward, another betrayal.

Still, a few years later — and after repeated conflicts with Bush on the war in Iraq and other matters — Kennedy sought a third big opportunity with the president, who by then was embattled. This time the issue was immigration.

It was a rare instance of Kennedy and Bush having largely similar goals: finding a way to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the country, to make the immigration process more fair and more clear, and to allow a limited number of foreigners to stay in the United States temporarily as "guest workers."

Kennedy brought together an improbable collection of senators to hammer out a bill, including conservative South a class="afinder">Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and Dianne Feinstein, a moderate California Democrat worried about immigration's impact on her state's farm industry. Republican Jon Kyl, whose home state of Arizona was the entry point for most illegal immigrants, was there.

So were two Latinos with different political perspectives — Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, and Colorado Democratic Senator Ken Salazar, who is of Mexican descent.

Kennedy asked the disparate group to tell, one by one, how their families came to America. It was a poignant moment and created an early bond that would help the odd team of negotiators get through heated fights over details of the legislation.

The Senate, in the end, defeated the measure, and an exhausted Kennedy was disappointed but philosophical about it. The first time the Senate tried to do a housing antidiscrimination bill, they were able to get just a couple of votes, Kennedy told the Globe. But by the time the measure was approved, it passed nearly unanimously, and sponsors were able to expand the bill to include age and parenthood as factors landlords could not use to reject tenants.

And Kennedy vowed to come back at immigration, saying that it generally took three Congresses — at least six years — to build the momentum for any kind of civil rights legislation. Seeds planted in 2007 might well germinate in 2013.

"Teddy's always doing unconventional things to get what he wants," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat. "I think his view is if it takes 10 years or if it takes 15 years to get a bill, then let's do it in 15 years. He's always had the long view and the big picture in mind."

Susan Milligan can be reached at smilligan@globe.com.

Ted Kennedy book, 'The Last Lion'To read the full and definitive account of Ted Kennedy's life, including many events not covered in this series, see the new book "Last Lion."

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Patients' Bill of Rights

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Kennedy helped to extend the Ryan White bill, which gave assistance to cities hit by the AIDS crisis. The bill was named in memory of Ryan White, who contracted the disease from a blood transfusion. Kennedy helped to extend the Ryan White bill, which gave assistance to cities hit by the AIDS crisis. The bill was named in memory of Ryan White, who contracted the disease from a blood transfusion.
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Senators Kennedy, Richard Durbin (at the podium), and Tom Harkin hold a joint news conference on a Labor, Health, and Human Services report. Kennedy is known for being especially generous in sharing credit for legislation. Senators Kennedy, Richard Durbin (at the podium), and Tom Harkin hold a joint news conference on a Labor, Health, and Human Services report. Kennedy is known for being especially generous in sharing credit for legislation.

Charming the opposition

In a successful, last-ditch effort to get House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks on board for an immigration bill in 1990, Kennedy playfully offered high-quality cigars. In a successful, last-ditch effort to get House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks on board for an immigration bill in 1990, Kennedy playfully offered high-quality cigars.

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