Kennedy absences raise concern for health vote

Sen. Edward Kennedy’s absence from two high-profile public events is raising worries that the country’s longest congressional champion for health reform may not be available to shepherd it through the Senate this fall.

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Kennedy, 77, who has been battling a particularly deadly form of brain cancer since a diagnosis last May, did not attend a White House ceremony on Wednesday at which he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the country’s highest civilian honor.

He also did not attend a Friday funeral for his sister Eunice Shriver, who died on Tuesday.

The senator’s absences were particularly notable given that he has not been seen in public for several months, since throwing out the first pitch of the Boston Red Sox baseball season at Fenway Park in April.

As the country continues to debate healthcare reform during the August recess, lobbyists and senior Democratic aides are privately speculating whether the iconic senator could possibly provide the critical 60th vote on legislation this fall.

In an essay that made the cover of Newsweek magazine last month, Kennedy called the issue “the cause of my life.” Still chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Kennedy was forced to turn over leadership on the issue to his friend Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) earlier this summer.

“It was definitely noticed,” one Capitol Hill lobbyist said of Kennedy’s absences this week. “It’s in the back of people’s minds. But on the other hand, everything in Washington happens in a microscope, and everyone still assumes he’ll be there. And even if he passes away the issue will go on.”

Kennedy was diagnosed in May 2008 with a malignant glioma, the most common form of brain cancer. Known to strike about 9,000 people a year, particularly the elderly, medical statistics say it claims most victims within two years.

The senator underwent surgery in June at Duke University and appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. He attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, broke a Republican filibuster of a Democratic economic stimulus bill in February, and appeared in the Senate a handful of times before relocating to Florida in the spring and reducing his appearances after a new round of chemotherapy. He did not attend his committee’s markup of the healthcare bill in June.

There are still signs of optimism among Kennedy’s family, friends and supporters that a recovery is possible, or that the senator’s health will be stable enough to allow him to return to Capitol Hill this fall. Kennedy was reported to have attended a private mass at his sister’s home on Tuesday night, and the senator’s nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., told reporters on Friday that the senator went sailing on Thursday.

One Senate aide said Democratic leaders remain hopeful that Kennedy will be available if needed. For now, the aide noted, the debate is still in an early stage and a final vote isn’t likely for months.

Another aide said there has been no contingency planning by Senate leaders for a healthcare vote without Kennedy, given the uncertainty over the legislation and the early stage of the timeline. It also remains an open question whether Democrats will be able to win any crossover votes from Republican moderates like Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins of Maine, or Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Outside observers such as Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report, said she senses that the Senate is prepared to navigate the legislation without Kennedy.

“It doesn't appear that the leadership has been or is counting on his vote,” Duffy said.

Although absent senators can vote by proxy in committee, Senate Rule No. 12 requires they be present for all floor votes. However, the chamber has kept votes open to allow senators who arrive late to cast their ballot.

Staffers at both the Senate parliamentarian and historian’s offices say there is no Senate precedent for waiving chamber rules to allow any senator to vote by absentee, although such a possibility remains technically plausible.