Cowan Holds Kerry’s Seat, But Not His Desk

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of State John Kerry during the re-enactment of the swearing-in of Senator William ‘Mo’ Cowan on Feb. 7, 2013 at the Old Senate Chamber of the Capitol.

From Bloomberg Government’s Congress Tracker blog:

William “Mo” Cowan took John Kerry’s seat. Who gets his desk?

Each senator is assigned a desk on the chamber floor, and Kerry — who represented Massachusetts for 28 years and is now secretary of State — left behind one with special significance: It was Ted Kennedy’s and, before that, John F. Kennedy’s.

Democrats are now sorting out who gets the historic desk as part of the housekeeping that comes with each new Congress. There are almost a dozen new Democratic senators, and lawmakers must decide where everyone sits. While Republicans have finalized their seat arrangements for the next two years, Democrats were delayed by Kerry’s resignation.

Incoming as well as returning lawmakers often have special requests, said Associate Senate Historian Betty Koed. When Ohio Republican Rob Portman was elected in 2010, he sought out the desk used by Robert Taft, the Buckeye State lawmaker, known as “Mr. Republican,” who battled President Harry Truman. Missouri lawmakers often want a desk used by Truman when he was in the  Senate — not a difficult task, said Koed, since the 33rd president was a  desk-hopper, using 10 different ones during his decade-long legislative career.

Many of the desks date from the Capitol’s reconstruction after it was burned down during the War of 1812. The desks are numbered, and starting around 1900, lawmakers have signed their names inside the drawers so the desk’s lineage can be easily traced. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s desk includes Lyndon Johnson’s signature. Desk No. 86 has an inscription by South Carolinian Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat (and later a Republican),  commemorating his record 24-hour filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Over the years, lawmakers have declared a handful of desks off limits. Daniel Webster’s belongs to the senior senator from New Hampshire, by order of a 1974 resolution; while Webster represented Massachusetts in the Senate, he was born in New Hampshire. The Henry Clay desk stays within the Kentucky delegation; it’s currently occupied by Rand Paul because Mitch McConnell is using the Republican leader’s desk. Before he was president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis used desk No. 60, which lawmakers have agreed since 1995 to reserve for Mississippi’s senior senator.

The Kennedy-Kerry desk doesn’t enjoy the same formal protections, though Democrats probably will  continue reserving desk No. 83 for the Bay State’s senior senator, according to a congressional aide who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters.

That means it will remain with Elizabeth Warren, who has been using it since Kerry resigned. Cowan is now at the desk Warren was assigned.

In his farewell address to the chamber, Kerry reflected on the history behind the desk: “At this desk that once belonged to President Kennedy and to Ted Kennedy, I can’t help but be reminded that even our nation’s greatest leaders and all the rest of us are merely temporary workers,” he said, adding: “I am reminded this chamber is a living museum.”



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