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Accusing GOP leaders of “hysteria,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Monday that the Terri Schiavo case has created the image of a Republican abuse of power that will help Democrats in battling the Bush administration.

Kennedy said that actions and statements by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) urging intervention on behalf of Schiavo — a brain-damaged Florida woman who died last week — inadvertently made the case that the GOP has stockpiled too much power in Washington.

Such rhetoric, Kennedy said, helps Democrats make the case against changing rules on filibusters and other items of President Bush’s agenda. He likened the actions of Frist and DeLay to the “overreach” by Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) soon after he became Speaker in 1995.

“That’s undermining the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary. That is a very, very powerful and important concept which doesn’t go down well with people. … That reaches the core of what our society is about,” Kennedy said in a breakfast meeting with Roll Call’s staff. Of the actions by this generation’s GOP leaders, Kennedy said, “In terms of the fundamentals, the Constitution, it’s much more serious — it’s much more profound.”

Kennedy said that while Democrats have struggled to break through the GOP’s control of the White House, Senate and House — “We don’t have the loudspeaker,” he said — polls now show that a broad majority opposed Congressional intervention in the Schiavo case.

This reaction, Kennedy said, suggests that Republicans have helped create “a much more alert citizenry” that would be receptive to Democratic arguments that the GOP wields too much power.

In particular, Kennedy believes that the reaction to the Schiavo case will help Democrats gin up opposition to Frist’s effort to end filibusters on judicial nominations.

Frist’s parliamentary move is one that Kennedy himself once endorsed to curtail filibusters of civil rights bills in the 1960s and ’70s. But asked about that history, Kennedy said, “That isn’t what this is about. This is about a power grab,” he said.

Kennedy also backhandedly expressed “admiration” for Bush’s campaign-style stumping to promote his efforts to carve out private accounts from Social Security, which Democrats have steadfastly opposed despite Bush’s efforts.

“All the polls show he’s not making much progress, and he keeps going back out there to the states,” Kennedy said, predicting dire political consequences. “I have, as a politician and as a human being, begrudging respect for that kind of commitment.”

Although his party holds its smallest number of Senate seats since before his brother was president, Kennedy has remained a force in the Senate and, to some degree, is wielding more clout than ever within his Caucus as a new leadership team learns the ropes.

Kennedy applauded outreach efforts by new Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, saying the 2004 results demonstrated the need for the party to expand its popularity beyond the coastal states. “Democrats have to go South and West,” he said.

But he said the party needed to stay rooted in its principles, and he attributed Bush’s victory to a better-tooled campaign apparatus and the ongoing war on terror and in Iraq. “The country was just reluctant to bring about change and a shift at a time when there’s a fair amount of uncertainty,” he said.

The next Republican presidential nominee will lack that power of incumbency and yet still have to bear what Kennedy believes is the burden of Bush’s policies in an eight-year stretch, both internationally and domestically. If Democrats can stay united over the next few years, he said, “there’s going to be an accounting at some time.”

One potential 2008 GOP aspirant who has lost a touch of glow in Kennedy’s eyes is Frist, who during the Schiavo fight contradicted the diagnosis of many Florida doctors by offering his judgment that she might not have been in a persistent vegetative state after watching portions of a videotape made several years ago.

Calling Frist his “good friend,” Kennedy said the Majority Leader “has to have damaged his reputation as a doctor in terms doing an assessment of Miss Schiavo on the floor of United States Senate.”

“The kind of hysteria which took place with the Republican leadership over this period of time obviously must be distressing to the American people, not just Tom DeLay’s threats in terms of judges,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy is taking a lead role in the pending battle with Frist over judicial nominations — known as the “nuclear option” because Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to grind the chamber to a halt if Republicans unilaterally end filibusters on judicial nominees.

While 181 conservative groups signed a letter Monday endorsing immediate action to end filibusters, Frist has not indicated when the showdown will happen. Most observers expect it to come sometime later this spring.

In an important concession on parliamentary rules, Kennedy acknowledged that the method Republicans were using — an attempt to get a ruling from the chair instituting a rule change that would then require just 50 votes to be upheld — can sometimes be appropriate for altering chamber customs.

He supported such a move in the 1960s and mid-1970s, but noted that those were efforts to cut the required number of votes to obtain cloture after mostly Southern Democrats had used the filibuster to stymie civil rights legislation.

Those fights took place almost always at the start of the Congress, which to Kennedy would have been the appropriate time to take up the fight over judicial filibusters.

The previous efforts to rein in filibusters — which led to the 1975 compromise that set 60 votes as the threshold for cloture — were bipartisan efforts on “core issues” such as civil rights, Kennedy said.

Kennedy reiterated that today’s “nuclear option” advocates were using such tactics for unilaterally partisan purposes. “That was such an extraordinary time in American history,” he said.

Kennedy also touched on a variety of other topics, including:

• the decision by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) to forgo the Ocean State’s Senate race, saying he thinks his son probably wants to spend his entire legislative career in the House. “He had always had that in the back of his mind, staying the course in the House. … I think he wants to make that his place over a long period of time.”

• his increasing belief that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) will not seek re-election and will instead run for president in 2008 — the third straight elected governor from the Bay State to abandon the job before serving two terms. “Everybody gets elected governor of Massachusetts and wants to leave,” he said.

• his budding respect for one Senate newcomer, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where Kennedy is ranking member. Burr attends all the hearings, Kennedy said. “I find that he listens and asks some good questions, so it’s a start.”

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