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Why Kennedy Chose Labor Over Judiciary

November 16, 1986|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen is congressional correspondent for the National Journal.

WASHINGTON — Some Capitol Hill observers were surprised when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) opted last weekend to chair the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, rather than take the top post of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But that decision, which sources close to Kennedy predicted months ago, makes eminent sense for both the senator and his party when the new Congress convenes in January. And it offers valuable insights into how Democrats will handle their reacquired Senate majority for the next two years.

Kennedy chose to chair a committee where he can address a panoply of health, education, welfare and labor issues--the nation's social agenda. He plans to use his assignment to chart new directions to meet human needs that he believes are being ignored during the Gramm-Rudman era of tightfisted budgets.

In doing so, Kennedy also wants to shape the 1988 presidential campaign debate on domestic policy and offer planks for the Democratic platform on such emerging issues as welfare reform and job training. "I welcome the opportunity to participate in creating a new agenda for social progress in America," he told a Boston press conference when he announced he would take over the Labor Committee. It is a good bet that Kennedy will spend more time traveling across the nation spotlighting economic woes, as he did last December.

His active chairmanship may surprise people who expect that his solutions will cost additional billions of federal dollars. As he has shown on several issues in recent years--including leadership of airline deregulation and support for President Reagan's proposed presidential line-item veto of federal spending--Kennedy has an innovative and sometimes independent streak. He does not quite fit the big-spending caricature of partisan Republican attacks.

Kennedy, for example, will attempt to emulate the success of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D-Mass.) who overhauled his state's welfare system with a plan calling for work, not government handouts. On health issues, he will focus not on national health insurance--which he pushed in the 1970s--but on improving patient accessibility to health care, a goal that may impose burdens on doctors and hospitals but need not cost much federal money.

While gladdening the hearts of organized labor and other liberal lobbies with a long history of working with him, Kennedy disappointed many members of the nation's civil rights and legal community who wanted him to chair the Judiciary Committee. Instead, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a potential presidential candidate, is in line to chair that panel. Judiciary's prime responsibility the next two years will be to review Reagan's nominees for federal judgeships and, liberals hope, put a brake on the President's efforts to select judges who will place his stamp on the judicial branch, notably the Supreme Court.

The unhappiness of civil-rights leaders is not so much concern over a Biden chairmanship, although they worry that he occasionally has been at odds with them on issues like abortion and busing during his 14-year Senate record. Instead, they simply feel more comfortable about Kennedy and prefer his stronger style. "Biden is reluctant to be confrontational," said a leading civil-rights figure. "With Kennedy, there is a consistency of forceful action that has built confidence and trust with us."

According to sources familiar with his decision, Kennedy will still play an active role on controversial nominees, as he showed in his grilling this summer of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He found little appeal, however, in the prospect of dealing primarily with legal issues at the Judiciary post. In a personal sense, taking the front line on heated issues like abortion, affirmative action and school prayer would be likely to resurrect the hate-mail and vitriolic attacks on Kennedy, making him once again a national lightning rod for conservatives.

But the chief difference between the two committees is that Labor will allow him to initiate a positive legislative and political program, while at Judiciary he would have had to take a largely negative, reactive role.

What can be expected from Biden as chairman? Even his critics agree that he is a thoughtful, hard-working student of constitutional history and that he believes the Senate should play an important role in the confirmation of federal judges. But he and others involved with those nominations may have to contend with two problems:

First, although he is often outspoken, he is more centrist than Kennedy in ideology and cautious in legislative style. During the Rehnquist debate, Biden asked tough questions but waited far longer than Kennedy to announce opposition. Civil-rights lobbyists said that made it more difficult for them to generate opposition to Rehnquist from undecided senators until the day or two before the vote; by then, potential opponents had lined up in support and Rehnquist was confirmed 65-33.

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