Ted Kennedy Thought Harry Reid Didn't Do Enough On Immigration Reform In 2007

A just-released interview shows that he wasn't impressed by other senators, either.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) right, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) center, look on as then-Senate Majority Leader Harry
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) right, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) center, look on as then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) addresses immigration reform on May 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON -- The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) largely blamed Senate Democrats for the failure of immigration reform in 2007, according to an interview released on Wednesday.

In the October 2007 interview, given to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia for an oral history of his career, Kennedy painted a bleak picture of the Senate's lackluster efforts to pass immigration reform, one of his main legislative priorities before his death in 2009. He even predicted it would "take another 45 years for someone else to get this thing passed" after his immigration bill died in 2007. Kennedy criticized Republican opposition as well as a "constantly tentative" response from Democratic leadership, reserving particularly harsh words for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

"[Reid] was never really interested in it until the very end, and at the very end it was too late," Kennedy said, according to a transcript posted by the Miller Center. The center on Wednesday released a series of interviews with Kennedy that took place between 2005 and 2008, in partnership with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate in Boston.

Kennedy accused Reid, then the majority leader, along with top Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and "to some extent" Dick Durbin (Ill.), of focusing on the wrong things, such as whether they could avoid being "snookered" with a bad bill and whether blaming Republicans for the failure to pass reform would help Democrats win Latino votes.

"We want to do this enough so that we can get the Hispanic votes, but not enough so that we get our people caught in it," Kennedy said, describing the thinking of Democratic leadership. 

Kennedy's criticisms of the reform effort weren't limited to Reid, Schumer and Durbin. He said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), then the minority leader, had "absolutely no intention of doing anything but sinking the bill." A spokesman for McConnell did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In the interview, Kennedy also described then-Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who worked with him on the bill, as "knowledgeable" and "forceful," but said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was "very troublesome" in meetings. He accused many others of being absent from the process, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, who Kennedy said was "somewhat interested" in an earlier effort to pass reform in 2006, but "not around the second time because he was also running for president."

Overall, Kennedy said, immigration, civil rights and gay rights brought out "the worst in terms of the functions of the Senate."

"Immigration starts out as reasonably sanitized, and then -- as we have seen recently, in 2006 and 2007 -- basically deteriorates into racist amendments and racism on the floor of the Senate," the Massachusetts senator lamented.

"It’s been dressed a different way, but I’ve said that it’s the same music we heard in the early ’60s with different words," he added.

Kennedy wasn't around for something that might have redeemed many of the senators he criticized: the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. That bill was championed by Reid and drafted by the so-called gang of eight: Durbin and Schumer along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) Before the bill passed, Reid gave a floor speech saying he knew Kennedy "is looking at us proudly and loudly."

The bill never got a vote in the House of Representatives, as a spokeswoman for Reid noted to The New York Times when reached for comment about Kennedy's remarks. Reid is retiring at the end of his term as a champion of the immigration reform community, in spite of the tensions that followed the 2007 effort. 

Reid's office did not respond to The Huffington Post's request for comment. However, Schumer spokesman Matt House similarly defended the Democratic leadership's commitment to immigration reform. 

“As Senator Kennedy said, Republicans had 'absolutely no intention of doing anything but sinking the bill,'" he told HuffPost, referencing what Kennedy said about McConnell in the interview. "Still, Democrats put their full weight behind trying to get a bill passed in 2007, and eventually Senator Schumer helped lead the gang of eight to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate six years later."