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Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, and the History of Sick Bed Senators

5 years ago
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It remains one of the most dramatic scenes in Senate history. California Democrat Clair Engle -- dying from a brain tumor -- was wheeled onto the Senate floor, attended by a nurse, to vote to end a Dixiecrat filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As civil rights historian Nick Kotz tells it in "Judgment Days," Engle valiantly tried to speak but could not form the words. So he slowly lifted his hand and pointed to his eye as the Senate clerk declared, "Senator Engle votes aye."

Sometime before the August recess, the Senate could witness similar sad-eyed moments as Ted Kennedy (battling brain cancer) and the frail nonagenarian Robert Byrd (who was just released after a month in the hospital) may be needed to cast decisive votes to support Barack Obama's health care plan. With Al Franken finally slated to be sworn in next week as the Democrats' 60th senator, the votes are theoretically there to muster the three-fifths majority needed to shut off a Republican filibuster against health care reform. But only if Kennedy and Byrd are healthy enough to vote or determined enough to rise from a hospital bed.

That is precisely what California GOP Sen. Pete Wilson did in 1985, casting a key vote in favor of Ronald Reagan's budget. Just 32 hours after surgery to remove a ruptured appendix, Wilson arrived by ambulance at the Capitol shortly after midnight and was wheeled onto the Senate floor wearing blue pajamas covered by a brown velour robe. Not only was Wilson able to cast his vote in a firm voice, but he even held a brief press conference during the late-night session in which he jokingly asked reporters, "What are you all doing up this late?"

Other ailing legislators have made memorable cameo appearances on the Senate floor, including Kennedy himself, who unexpectedly returned last July -- in the midst of cancer treatments -- to help stifle a Republican filibuster on the Medicare bill. "I didn't want to miss the opportunity to express my voice and my vote," Kennedy said at the time. Other Senate patriarchs such as Hubert Humphrey and John Stennis gamely tried to carry on with their legislative duties (or, at least, vote) during the last months of their lives. And, of course, Strom Thurmond, who reluctantly left the Senate shortly after his 100th birthday, seemed dimly aware of his surroundings during his final months in office as Republican leader Trent Lott constantly instructed him how to vote.

But in the annals of sick-bed senators, Clair Engle stands alone. A week after his 1964 vote against the anti-civil rights filibuster, Engle returned to the Senate floor to vote in favor of final passage of the landmark bill. Once again, Engle was unable to speak and had to point to his eye to underscore his aye vote. Engle died six weeks later at age 52.

Curiously, both Kennedy and Byrd -- the two Democratic senators who may have to defy their doctors to vote on health care reform -- also played center stage roles in this 1964 battle over civil rights. Kennedy, in fact, delivered his first major Senate address in support of the bill. Flying home to Massachusetts for a Democratic Party dinner after the final vote on the legislation, Kennedy almost died in a private plane crash that kept him bedridden with back injuries for months.

As for Byrd -- the Bush-era liberal hero for his full-throated opposition to the Iraq War -- his role on the civil rights bill was ignominious. The West Virginia Democrat delivered a 14-hour, 13-minute attack on the legislation as the concluding speech in the segregationist filibuster. Now at 91, after a half century in the Senate, Byrd's vote may be needed later this summer to break a different kind of a filibuster.
Filed Under: Senate

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