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Health Insurance (Kennedy)

Ted Kennedy wakes up in his house on Cape Cod to a packet of news clippings put together by his wife. If there's a hearing in Washington, D.C., he watches on his computer.

Five hundred miles away, Congress is wrestling with legislation to give every American access to quality health care. It is the moment the Massachusetts Democrat has worked toward for 46 years. But instead of marshaling the crowning achievement of his career, he is sidelined, battling brain cancer.

"He has lived for this day when America would finally extend this right to every citizen. There's no doubt if he could, he would be here in the thick of this," Kennedy's son Patrick, a Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, said in an interview, sitting on a bench on the Capitol grounds with tears in his eyes.

But history's third-longest-serving senator isn't out of the game. Exerting what influence he can from his sickbed, he advises his aides in Washington over the phone. He has made himself the poster child of what he calls "my life's cause," and is using his illness in a final press for universal health care.

Kennedy, 77, seems determined not to miss this. He has outlasted medical expectations since doctors diagnosed a malignant tumor in spring 2008 and is not above expending every last bit of his political capital to deliver the bill. Democratic leaders are making plans to bring him to the Senate floor later this year in a wheelchair, a bed if necessary, to cast his vote.

"I have enjoyed the best medical care money (and a good insurance policy) can buy. ... Every American should be able to get the same treatment that U.S. senators are entitled to," Kennedy wrote in an essay in Newsweek last week, adding: "We're almost there."

He cited his sophisticated course of treatment risky surgery at Duke University Medical Center to remove part of the tumor, proton-beam radiation at Massachusetts General Hospital and multiple rounds of chemotherapy as a privilege of the rich.

"My wife, Vicki, and I have worried about many things, but not whether we could afford my care and treatment." Kennedy's aggressive cancer is bringing a sense of urgency to a famously slow-moving Congress, with friends on both sides of the aisle mindful of passing a bill in time for him to see it signed.

The last time he came to the Capitol was April. In June, he missed passage of his own groundbreaking measure to regulate tobacco. This month, Kennedy, who heads the Senate Health committee, could not participate in the drafting of his legislation.

People close to him say he has his good days and bad. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who has taken over duties as chairman, has had dinner with him twice. Former aides recalled hundreds of meals at Kennedy's home in McLean, Va., or later on in Washington's elegant Kalorama, where experts on all manner of subjects gathered for lively exchanges. His well-informed staff is respected on Capitol Hill and in Kennedy's absence enjoys unusually direct access to some lawmakers.

But Kennedy's aides have not been in a position to broker compromises and have caused tension at times, trying to carry on in Kennedy's stead while lacking his stature. Few senators possess the friendships that have brought Republicans to the table or the gravitas that holds the party rank and file in line.

"He's the only Democrat who really has the sway with the unions, the trial lawyers, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, feminists," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican who has teamed with Kennedy on health-care legislation for three decades

The tragedies in Kennedy's life his brothers' deaths, his son Ted Jr.'s partial leg amputation from bone cancer, his daughter Kara's lung cancer shaped a commitment to universal health care that spans nearly a half-century.

Patrick Kennedy recalled traveling with his father in the 1970s to some of the poorest corners of America to highlight people without health insurance. He said his father walked the halls while hospitalized for treatment in Massachusetts and North Carolina this year, asking other cancer patients and their families how they were managing the bills. "It still breaks his heart," the younger Kennedy said.

Ted Kennedy's record on health-care reform is hardly flawless. Critics say his refusal to compromise with Presidents Nixon and Carter missed promising windows of opportunity. During President Reagan's years, he bowed to labor unions and declined to back a plan for catastrophic health insurance, a move he later regretted.

Now an overhaul seems more possible than it has in years, and Kennedy's absence is keenly felt. Some wondered privately if Kennedy could have headed off some of the contentious debates and the staggering number of amendments his health committee's bill carried.

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