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Edward Brooke

11/4/2009, 3:25 a.m.

Edward Brooke

WASHINGTON — With Democrats and Republicans engaged in a heated debate over health care, former Sen. Edward Brooke, the first black man elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate, pointedly suggested last Wednesday that lawmakers put aside their partisan differences awhile.

At a Capitol ceremony honoring him, the 90-year-old Massachusetts Republican addressed a multitude of issues on Congress’ plate in addition to health care: overseas wars, restoring the economy and providing Americans with adequate housing.

“We’ve got to get together,” Brooke said, turning his eyes to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “We have no alternative. There’s nothing left. It’s time for politics to be put aside on the back burner.”

Brooke was presented the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress has to honor civilians for achievements and contributions to society.

Attending the ceremony, President Barack Obama called Brooke “a man who’s spent his life breaking barriers and bridging divides across this country.”

Brooke grew up in Washington and served in a segregated unit in the Army during World War II before entering the political arena and winning election to the Senate in 1966 as the first black senator since Reconstruction.

As senator, he took on the populist causes of low-income housing, increasing the minimum wage and mass transit before losing re-election in 1978. President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

Obama said he followed the trail that Brooke blazed.

“He ran for office, as he put it, to bring people together who had never been together before,” Obama said. “He didn’t care whether a bill was popular or politically expedient, Democratic or Republican — he cared about whether it helped people, whether it made a difference in their daily lives.”

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and other lawmakers introduced the legislation to give Brooke Congress’ highest award. Two-thirds of the House and Senate had to co-sponsor the measure in order for the medal to be awarded.

Kennedy’s son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Kennedy, attended the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. (AP)