Kennedy may not return this month

Sen. Edward Kennedy is undergoing a new round of chemotherapy, and lawmakers expect the Massachusetts Democrat will not be able to return for this month’s debate on the healthcare overhaul that bears his name.

Kennedy, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, has turned over day-to-day leadership to Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), his longtime friend and the second-ranking Democrat on the panel.

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A senior Democrat working on reform who speaks frequently to Kennedy said the senator is weakened by his latest round of chemotherapy and is not expected to return for the HELP Committee markup, which begins on June 16 and could go two weeks.

Colleagues hope Kennedy is well enough to join the Senate floor debate in July on the bill that he has called the “cause of my life.”

Lawmakers say they are praying for his return.

“He’s great for three or four hours a day and then gets tired,” said the senior Democratic lawmaker.

Since Kennedy was diagnosed in May 2008 with a malignant glioma, one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer, his health has become an issue that his colleagues have addressed with extreme care; the senator is respected, admired and liked on both sides of the aisle.

Senate Democrats maintain hope that Kennedy, 77, can beat the cancer, but privately they are realistic about the statistics, said the source. Nearly 9,000 people are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year, and most die within two years, according to medical statistics.

Kennedy has made it clear to his colleagues that he doesn’t want his personal health to affect the outcome of the legislative debate, and has asked them to press on without his presence in Washington.

Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley said his boss will play a leading role on the legislation, even if he has to do it from his home in Hyannis Port, Mass.

“As Sen. Kennedy has said many times, guaranteeing that all Americans have access to affordable and quality healthcare is the cause of his life,” Coley said. “He’s been a leader on this issue for 40 years, and he continues to lead. That doesn’t depend on location.”

Coley said Kennedy is “doing well and continues to balance his work on health reform with his treatment plan.” He added that Kennedy and Dodd had a “very productive” meeting on Sunday “about the next steps on health reform.

Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the senior Republican on the HELP Committee, said that he is praying for Kennedy to return.

“He may make some appearances but not [have] any significant role, I don’t think,” Enzi said. “I keep praying for it.”

Enzi and Kennedy have a good working relationship, and the GOP senator said Kennedy is missed.

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Republicans complain that they have been cut out of the drafting of the healthcare bill, and Enzi noted that Kennedy would have sought greater input from the GOP lawmakers.

“They seem bound and determined to go ahead and mark up what the Kennedy staff wrote, and I don’t think that’s what Kennedy would have insisted upon, because he always did a better job of listening to me than that.”

Kennedy’s staff on the HELP Committee is now reporting to Dodd, as well as Kennedy, a senior Democratic aide said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is close to Kennedy, said the committee is “going ahead without him.”

Hatch, who is playing a role in the healthcare debate as a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, said most important decisions are being driven by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

A senior aide to Kennedy confirmed that his boss has told Dodd to move healthcare reform through the committee in his absence. The aide said, however, that Kennedy may return to the Senate any day.

“You never know with this stuff; he may make it back,” said the aide. “The instruction was: ‘Go forth.’ ”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), one of Kennedy’s closest friends, warned against counting Kennedy out for the month of June. He said Kennedy decided it was in the best interest of his recovery to allow Dodd to go ahead while he remained in Massachusetts.

“I wouldn’t draw any conclusions; he can’t be here right now, but he’s doing well,” said Kerry. “I had lunch with him a week ago.

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“I think this is the better part of judgment. He’s in touch with people on the phone and he’s working with them, but he thinks it makes sense for his own treatment to get the committee thing out.”

Kennedy was expected to have returned to the Senate full-time by now.

Kennedy’s office told The Hill in March that he would return when the weather was warm. Several lawmakers told The Hill before the Memorial Day recess that they expected Kennedy to return in June in time to chair the markup.

Kennedy has returned to the Senate only a few times since receiving his diagnosis. In January, he collapsed at a ceremonial lunch celebrating President Obama’s inauguration after sitting outside for hours in freezing weather to witness the swearing-in.

Kennedy also showed up on the Senate floor in February to cast a crucial vote to cut off a Republican filibuster of the economic stimulus package.

Democratic senators crowded around the legendary lawmaker when he made his last floor appearance. He joked with his colleagues while leaning on a cane for support. He had lost weight and showed a slight tremor in his hand.

“No one wants to be back here more than he does,” Dodd said. “He is just absolutely adamant that we go forward.”