Even Senators Are Awestruck by Ted Kennedy’s Senate Chamber

Senators Whitehouse and Levin hang out in a life-size replica of the Senate Chamber during a gala that was part of the dedication ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston on Mar. 29 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senators Whitehouse and Levin hang out in a life-size replica of the Senate Chamber during a gala that was part of the dedication ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston on Mar. 29 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 30, 2015 at 8:39am

BOSTON — There are few places in the political world as awe inspiring as the Senate chamber, but there’s now a pretty darn good modern replica that will be a living legacy for the liberal lion, Edward M. Kennedy.  

Stepping onto the floor of the replica Senate chamber through the doorway that might be most often used by Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that is the highlight of the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute is, in a word, surreal.  

On a quick tour of the facility Sunday morning before an evening gala held on the grounds of the Institute adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on the shore of Dorchester Bay, it was obvious this museum would be one-of-a-kind, and the lawmakers present for ceremonies ahead of Tuesday’s public opening agreed.  

“My first feeling was that it’s going to be an amazing experience for young people to be able to talk on to this Senate floor, and to be able to have debates on this Senate floor” Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., told CQ Roll Call Sunday night. “To be inspired by the opportunities for public service that this institution is going to create.”  

“This is incredible, and to walk into the replica Senate, I feel like I’m really in the Senate,” said Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. “I  think what he would be pleased about is that … this is a living civics lesson for anybody who comes here.”  

There’s also a re-creation of Kennedy’s personal office, featuring family photos and memorabilia, that looks as if someone transported a room directly from the Russell Senate Office Building north to Boston.  

President Barack Obama headlines the line-up of dignitaries scheduled at the formal dedication Monday, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (acting in his capacity of President of the Senate, to be sure) is set to preside over the mock chamber.  

Other than modifications that ensure compliance with modern regulations and laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, the replica is like a shiny new mirror image of the real thing.  

As in the real world, the chamber’s press gallery seating features stools with tan leather cushions rather than the chairs for visitors from the public.  

There’s even an appropriately positioned candy desk in the back row on the Republican side of the chamber. The biggest difference between the real Senate and this life-sized imitation, which was created with the assistance of a three-dimensional scan of the real thing, is the reliance on technology.  

During last week’s budget vote-a-rama, senators were granted special permission to make use of calculators and mobile devices such as iPads, but that’s still an exception to the usual regulations.  

In the mock Senate, as part of the immersion experience, each guest touring the facility is issued a tablet for a simulation of the legislative process, through the eyes of a senator. There’s even a legislative process simulation that works through the process of turning a bill into a law through the example of legislation prescribing the toppings on an ice cream sundae.  

Since the institute is dedicated to the Senate, it might come as no surprise that the simulation has the House bringing to conference negotiations more peculiar and less desirable ice cream toppings. And as preposterous as the subject matter may be, the sundae legislation simulation is far more realistic than the old “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon.  

Behind the presiding officer’s position on the dais is a large video display, and there’s another on the side wall of the chamber that would be closest to Reid’s suite in the Capitol.  

The institute’s primary mission is educational, and students and other visitors will work through an issue of the day (it was immigration on the Sunday before the formal opening).  

The educational module might even be more interesting, where Institute staff says students will be assigned to roles of different senators in the debate over slavery that led to the compromise of 1850, meaning some will argue, as did the likes of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, in favor of the institution.  

While she had yet to see the chamber itself when she first entered the building Sunday evening for a reception ahead of the gala, Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said Markey had already been talking about the place, and its educational endeavors.  

“The truth is this is exactly the kind of memorial that Ted Kennedy would want, something that’s living and breathing and holding up the Senate and legislating. I told Vicki [Kennedy] it’s a perfect thing for him,” Stabenow said.  

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