ABC News’ Z. Byron Wolf Reports: Sen. Ted Kennedy, still with his mane of silver hair, but recovering from brain surgery and in the midst of chemotherapy treatments returned to the Capitol Building today to help Democrats break a Republican filibuster of a bill to keep a pay cut for Medicare doctors from going into effect.
The Senate chamber erupted in cheers and standing ovation as walked on the floor for the first time since May. Republicans walked across the aisle to shake his hand even as he voted to break their filibuster.
It’s a fitting bill for Kennedy to return for. He is chairman of the Senate Committee that handles health policy and the bill deals with payments to doctors who treat Medicare payments. It’s unclear if Sen. Kennedy is treated under Medicare himself, but at age 77, he would certainly qualify.
"Illness and age know no party boundaries," Kennedy said of his return and vote in a written statement. "The 44 million Americans who rely on Medicare to meet their health care needs are both Democrats and Republicans. Like all Americans, they have worked hard all their lives. They’ve raised their families. They’ve built our towns and cities and farmed the land. They’ve served in our military. We owe them so much for the part they have played in making America a great country. So today I proudly cast this important vote for them – a vote to keep the Medicare program strong and effective for the future."
After voting, Kennedy paused with is wife, Vicki, and son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-RI, on the Capitol steps to wave to supporters. He said "I’m feeling better," and that he would be "coming back to the Senate some time hopefully not too far away."
They nearly ran headlong into another Kennedy, Caroline, who was on Capitol Hill with Sen. Barack Obama, presumably as part of his vice presidential search team.
Back in the Capitol building, leaders from both parties were praising Kennedy for his return under duress.
"I’ve never seen a more moving minute then the time that Kennedy walked on the floor today," said the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada.
"He surprised us all," said an emotional Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., one of Kennedy’s closest friends in the Senate. "Ted’s not in the habit of listening to doctors. I’ve been here in the senate 27 years and I don’t recall a moment like this one."
Democrats fell one vote short of passing a Medicare bill last month. While the bill got bipartisan support in the House and passed overwhelmingly there, Republicans in the Senate wanted to put their mark on the bill and blocked it.
Senate Democrats had been trolling all week for another Republican to support the bill – 9 Republicans voting against the filibuster had brought them within one.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democrat in charge of counting votes, gave a speech on the Senate floor earlier today with a large poster, which read "1 vote."
"We need one more Republican vote," Durbin pleaded. "One more."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid admonished his colleagues just before the cloture vote, "As I look across the aisle to my friends, the 60th vote is there," he said.
They ultimately got more than one. After Kennedy cast his vote and it became clear that Democrats could break the filibuster, ten Republicans who voted against the Medicare bill in June switched positions against the filibuster today.
"There was not a person who was not thrilled to see Sen. Kennedy back and looking so good," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., who supported the filibuster in June but voted against it today.
The bill ultimately passed comfortable margin to overturn a promised veto from President Bush.
Republicans who oppose the bill say the Medicare bill will hurt private insurers who target those who qualify for Medicare. Democrats pay for stopping the 10.6 percent pay cut for Medicare doctors by cutting payments for Medicare Advantage, modeled as a market-based alternative to Medicare.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Leader, said Republicans should not be blamed for cutting the doctors fees because Democrats won’t agree to a short-term fix while they debate a compromise in the Senate.
"Democrats don’t want a compromise. They don’t want a long term extension of current law. They don’t want a short term extension of current law. Yet they’re not to blame for this pay cut for Medicare?" McConnell asked rhetorically.