By Reid Wilson - 08/26/09 11:30 AM EDT
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the last surviving brother in one of America’s most famous political families, died at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass., late Tuesday at the age of 77.
The second-most senior member of the Senate, Kennedy played major roles in passing numerous civil rights, disability rights, healthcare and education measures during his long tenure.
"We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it’s hard to imagine any of them without him.”
Many had been expecting the news. The Massachusetts Democrat was diagnosed in May 2008 with a malignant glioma, one of the deadliest types of brain tumors, after suffering a seizure at his home. He had been largely absent was the Senate this year, despite the intense debate over healthcare reform, which Kennedy had called “the cause of my life.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle issued statements paying tribute to the senator who had served for 46 years and was known as the upper chamber’s liberal lion.
President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to praise Kennedy and say that even though they had known this day was coming, they anticipated it with “no small amount of dread.”
“I’ve had the honor to call Teddy a colleague, a counselor and a friend,” Obama said.
“The Kennedy name is synonymous with the Democratic Party. And at times, Ted was the target of partisan campaign attacks. But in the United States Senate, I can think of no one who engendered greater respect or affection from members of both sides of the aisle. His seriousness of purpose was perpetually matched by humility, warmth, and good cheer. He could passionately battle others and do so peerlessly on the Senate floor for the causes that he held dear, and yet still maintain warm friendships across party lines.”
Obama said he called Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, and extended his thoughts and prayers to the family. The White House said Obama does not plan to visit the family this week in Hyannis Port.
Funeral and memorial plans have yet to be released. Flags are flying at half-mast at the Capitol, the White House and federal office buildings.
It is very likely that Kennedy would be the 29th person to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Henry Clay, a former Speaker of the House, was the first in 1852. The honor - in which a casket or coffin is placed in the center of the Rotunda for public viewing - is reserved for presidents, members of Congress, and military commanders.
Vice President Joe Biden, a close friend, was visibly shaken and tearing up while calling Kennedy a “truly remarkable man.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the Kennedy family and Senate "have together lost our patriarch."
"As we mourn his loss, we rededicate ourselves to the causes for which he so dutifully dedicated his life," Reid said.
Democrats said Wednesday that the legendary senator’s passing is even more reason for them to pass healthcare reform in his honor, a point echoed by outside interest groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
In a sign of respect, Republicans and opponents of the legislation took a break from the debate.
His diagnosis shocked his fellow senators. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) openly wept on the Senate floor the day Kennedy’s cancer was announced.
In a quivering voice, Byrd intoned, “Ted, Ted, my dear friend, I love you. … Thank God for you, Ted, thank God for you.”
Kennedy had brain surgery in June, and, for the most part, remained out of the public spotlight in the following months. His absence, however, was punctuated by several high-profile, and usually highly emotional, appearances.
He first re-emerged in July 2008 to cast a key vote to break a Republican filibuster on a Medicare bill and his Senate colleagues greeted him with thunderous applause. After endorsing Obama early in the 2008 presidential campaign, Kennedy gave a major speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.
He attended Obama’s inauguration in January, but had to leave the post-inauguration lunch after he suffered a seizure.
Kennedy's absence was acutely evident during the negotiations on healthcare reform. The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Kennedy entrusted his gavel to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), one of his closest friends in the upper chamber.
In July, when the HELP Committee passed Kennedy’s bill, Dodd said Kennedy called him “bellowing with joy.”
In August, Kennedy took steps to ensure that Democrats would not be without a vote after his death. He sent a letter his state’s governor and legislative leaders, asking them to change the succession law to ensure Massachusetts has two seats in the Senate.
Massachusetts law calls for a special election to fill the Senate seat Kennedy won in 1962 and held ever since. The state statute requires the governor to call a special election within 145 to 160 days.
Even though he was one of the Democrats’ most famous faces, Kennedy had long relationships, and close friendships, with several senior Republicans in the chamber.
He and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) worked closely for decades, and the two were good friends.
Though he was a political success — his only defeat came at the hands of incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential nomination battle — Kennedy was touched by personal tragedies.
His eldest brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr., died in World War II. Two other brothers were assassinated: John in 1963 and Robert in 1968. He also buried three sisters, Kathleen, Rosemary and Eunice; and three nephews, John Jr., David and Michael.
Kennedy is survived by his wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy; his children Kara Anne Kennedy, Edward Kennedy Jr. and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.); sister Jean Kennedy Smith; four grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.
Given Kennedy’s prominent congressional role it is likely that honor to lie in state would be extended to his family, though officials with knowledge of such an offer are declining to comment on the matter other than to say that final arrangements have not been solidified.
“The family will make any announcement about services,” said Terry Gainer, the Senate Sergeant at Arms. “The final decisions have not been made. The family and staff are working with the White House and Senate Leadership on the appropriate services.”
Seven members of Congress have previously lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda - not including members who have gone on to become president or vice president.
Only three people who did not hold a political or military office have lain in honor in the Capitol Rotunda: Rosa Parks, and two U.S. Capitol Policemen - officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson - who were killed in the line of duty in 1998 when a gunman stormed the Capitol.
— J. Taylor Rushing, Jordy Yager and Sam Youngman contributed to this article.
— This article was posted at 1:39 a.m.