Illness deprived Kennedy of seeing out 'cause of my life'

ByKathy Kiely, USA TODAY
August 26, 2009, 5:33 AM

— -- Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., died without realizing what he called "the cause of my life" — an overhaul of the nation's health care system.

No lawmaker was more closely identified with the issue that President Obama has made his top legislative priority than Kennedy, who began pushing for universal health care in the 1970s.

Battling brain cancer when he returned to the Senate this year, Kennedy decided to give up his seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee so he could focus on his work as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where he began drafting a health care bill within weeks after brain surgery last year.

Illness forced him to spend more time in Massachusetts; Kennedy had been absent from the Senate since April of this year.

In losing Kennedy, Obama loses a key Senate dealmaker at a crucial moment in legislative negotiations over the health care bill. Though an icon of Democratic liberalism, Kennedy was known to colleagues as a jovial pragmatist, whose many friendships with colleagues across the political and ideolgical spectrum made him one of the Senate's most influential players.

In a survey by The Hill newspaper earlier this year, Kennedy's Senate colleagues voted him "the most bipartisan" senator.

"I just like the guy," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told USA TODAY earlier this month. "He's fun to be around.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, last year's Republican presidential candidate, this week told ABC that he believed Kennedy's absence was making it more difficult to reach agreement on the health care bill.

"Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate because he had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions," McCain said Sunday. "It's huge that he's absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the health care reform might be in a very different place today."

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