WASHINGTON — A heartbroken Sen. Patty Murray called him a "valued friend, a courageous partner and a personal mentor," while Sen. Maria Cantwell called him the "heart and soul" of the Democratic Party and prepared to cancel a trip to China to attend his funeral.
Washington state's two Democratic senators reflected Wednesday on the death of Ted Kennedy, reminiscing about their relationship with a man known as the "Lion of the Senate" and eulogizing him as a consummate legislator who wouldn't hesitate to reach out to help younger colleagues and a voice of conscience and conciliation in an era when politics had become a blood sport.
"A very important person is gone," Murray said in a conference call with reporters. "We are now responsible for doing things without him. The torch has been passed."
Cantwell said Kennedy was among the first senators to greet her when she arrived in the Senate.
"For all the Kennedy name and fame, Teddy at heart was a legislator; he simply knew how to get things done," Cantwell said. "And for nearly half a century he was the best. He will be sorely missed and never replaced."
Murray served with Kennedy for 17 years and was a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which he chaired. Murray recalled her first day in the Senate when she sat and watched Kennedy arguing in favor of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which she had championed in Washington state.
The last time she talked with him was several months ago during a conference call with committee members about health care reform. It was Kennedy's signature issue.
"He encouraged us to be thoughtful, strong and think about what we wanted to accomplish," Murray said, adding that Kennedy "will be sitting on our shoulders" when the health care debate resumes in September.
Her most memorable moment involving Kennedy came the day she was sworn in for the first time, accompanied by her mother, who had never before left her wheelchair-bound husband.
Murray said her mother had grown up revering President John Kennedy, and after the ceremony Ted Kennedy came by her office.
"He gave her a hug," Murray said. "There were tears in her eyes."
Murray also recalled that the last time Kennedy was in Washington state he visited the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Kennedy had been instrumental in securing funding for cancer research.
"His passing is a loss to me," she said. "It is truly a loss for the country."
Cantwell, in a telephone interview, said she got to know Kennedy especially well during the fight over extending unemployment benefits.
"He was constantly nurturing, guiding young members and helping them find their way," Cantwell said. "He was masterful as a legislator. He knew how to grow policy."