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Kennedy helped shape many laws that affect average Americans

The late senator's legislative legacy includes hundreds of bills on a range of issues, including health, civil rights and labor.

August 27, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died Tuesday night at age 77, left a legislative legacy that will be hard to match in Washington's increasingly partisan atmosphere.

He played a key role in shaping national policy on a wide range of issues, especially health, education, civil rights and labor, during nearly 47 years in the Senate. More than 550 of his bills were signed into law, his office says.

"He changed the circumstances of tens of millions of Americans," said Vice President Joe Biden, a former Senate colleague.

He wrote bills that increased the minimum wage, made it easier for workers who lost jobs to keep their health insurance, and allowed employees to take time off to care for newborn children or deal with family illnesses. One of his efforts has resulted in the delivery of more than 6 billion meals to seniors, according to his office.

He worked with Republicans to gain passage of a number of landmark measures: the Americans With Disabilities Act providing protections against discrimination; the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, which his office says created the "single largest federal program for people with HIV/AIDS" in the United States; and the Orphan Drug Act providing tax credits to encourage the development of medicines for rare diseases. He co-wrote legislation to create a children's health insurance program that today covers more than 7 million previously uninsured children.

With then-Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), he pushed through legislation that guaranteed Americans the right to buy health insurance and limited the length of time that an insurer could deny coverage for a specific preexisting medical condition.

In 2001, Kennedy teamed up with President George W. Bush to gain passage of No Child Left Behind education legislation for increased testing and incentives to school districts.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Assn., said that Kennedy left "an indelible imprint on every major education law passed since the 1960s," beginning with Head Start in 1964. This spring, Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which bolstered music and arts education.

Kennedy also was a key force on civil rights, helping win passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. "He handled the bill on the Senate floor, and that legislation transformed the country by opening the doors to the waves of immigrants who have remade America in the past five decades," said Julian Zelizer, a congressional scholar at Princeton.

He also helped write laws to give 18-year-olds the right to vote.

"Nothing in Congress is done individually; it's ultimately all collective action. But Kennedy combined an ability to bring legislators together and to focus public attention on what they were doing," said Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian. "He could partner with members on both sides of the aisle, cut the deal, and shape the public message and public opinion."

Although Kennedy's goal to make healthcare more widely available was complicated by his absence, it remains a priority for President Obama and a Congress controlled by his fellow Democrats.

And another one of Kennedy's long-standing goals -- expansion of federal hate-crime laws -- stands a good chance of passage this year.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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