Kennedy the Missing Man in Health Care Fight

Health care reform is one of the ailing Massachusetts senator's passions.

WASHINGTON, July 26, 2009— -- Sen. Edward Kennedy is the missing man in the battle for health care reform.

As he stays home in Massachusetts for treatment for a brain tumor -- and an occasional sail -- colleagues say Kennedy is closely monitoring the health care debate on C-Span and email. Some email him through his wife.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is guiding the bill through the Senate in Kennedy's absence, keeps in frequent touch. But Kenedy's influence is said to be limited by his increasing difficulty communicating.

Now the health care reform he calls "the cause of my life" in a recent piece he wrote in Newsweek magazine has been stalled. And with some Democrats wavering in their support, the Senate is nearly certain to miss President Obama's deadline of passing it by August.

On Capitol Hill, nearly everyone agrees things would be different if the man known as the Liberal Lion were here.

"He's the only person I know that can corral them and get them to do what's right," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a longtime colleague, who has been both ally and rival, told ABC News. "He's willing to come to the center. He's willing to make it a true bipartisan bill."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., conceded Democrats will have to take more time and seek Republican support.

"Look, there are not the votes for Democrats to do this just on our side of the aisle," Conrad said. "It is not possible and perhaps not desirable either."

On Kennedy's rare returns to Washington, even the president takes notice, saying during one recent appearance by the Massachusetts senator, "It is thrilling to see you here, Teddy."

In Kennedy's absence, his colleagues invoke his name, hoping also to borrow his legislative prowess.

"Senator Kennedy, wrestling with his own health care crisis at this hour and has been unable to be with us," Dodd said in a speech Friday on the Senate floor.

"Senator Kennedy's presence was palpable," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the same day, discussing his colleague's effect on the health care reform debate.

Kennedy and Hatch have long had an unusual partnership that has spanned decades, one that has allowed them to combine on numerous pieces of legislation and left the two men with what, by all accounts, is a genuine affection for one another.

"We've passed a lot of bills together and we've done an awful lot together. I have a great deal of feeling for him," Hatch said.

When the two work together, Hatch added, "He gets all the credit. I get all the blame. The conservatives can't understand why I'd have anything to do with him. But actually he's a very good legislator. He's a very, very fine friend. I pray for him every day that he might get well."

When health care reform comes to a vote, Hatch says, if Kennedy has the strength, nothing will stop him from returning to the Capitol.

"I would think if they could get a bill put together, he'd be one of those who'd want to be there," Hatch told ABC.

Kennedy has arrived to vote several times since his diagnosis, but it's been three months since the last return of the senator from Massachusetts.

Obama now wants a health care reform bill he can sign by the end of the year. That job is made more difficult by the absence of the issue's top advocate on Capitol Hill.