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Kennedy's Illness Casts Pall over Congress


Add to yesterday's presidential contest this personal news, news that's also political. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It's malignant and was discovered after Kennedy was rushed to a hospital after suffering a seizure. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the news spread through the capital. It left his colleagues stunned by just the thought of lawmaking in the absence of one of the most prolific legislators ever to serve.

JULIE ROVNER: What Senator Kennedy has, a tumor known as a malignant glioma, isn't a good thing. But it's not clear yet exactly how bad it is. Here's how neuro-oncologist Andrew Norden described it last night to NPR.

Dr. ANDREW NORDEN (Neuro-oncologist): In general, there are a number of different types of malignant gliomas, and we don't yet know which type he has. That said, in general, the treatment consists of radiation and chemotherapy.

ROVNER: Back in the capital, however, all senators heard were the words malignant brain tumor. And within minutes of the news breaking, as Democrats and Republicans gathered for their weekly party lunch meetings, a pall seemed to settle over the hallways. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who's served with Kennedy in the Senate for more than 30 years, looked shaken after consulting with his wife, a nurse.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Both of us say the most important thing is to pray, and we will be praying. I'm going to Mass this evening and offering it for him.

ROVNER: Other senators seemed moved to reminisce about Kennedy. That wasn't hard, considering he served in the chamber for 46 of his 76 years, has chaired two major committees, and has played a major or minor role in nearly every piece of significant social welfare or health legislation since the mid-1960s. One of his frequent legislative partners over those years has been conservative Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. In the 1980s and 1990s, the pair helped pass bills to fund child care, AIDS treatment and prevention programs, and children's health insurance, among other things. Hatch said at the start, he never could have imagined what the two would accomplish.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I came back here to fight Ted every step of the way and - 'cause I disagreed with him.

ROVNER: But today, Hatch counts Kennedy as not just a sometime political ally, but also as one of his closest friends.

Sen. HATCH: There's a brotherhood there; we're like brothers. And I truly love the guy. Now that doesn't mean I agree with him, but I do love him. And he doesn't agree with me all the time, either.

ROVNER: More recent members of the Senate club have also experienced the Kennedy legislative mystique. Among them is South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who worked with Kennedy on an immigration bill last year.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): It's what I was told in the ninth grade Congress would be like, where you had members of the Senate with the members of the executive branch, cabinet secretaries, literally writing a bill line by line. He told me it was like the Civil Rights Bill, where you just put people in a room and you wouldn't let them out, something I'll always remember.

ROVNER: Kennedy's absence comes at a critical time in the legislative session. As chairman of the health, education, labor and pensions committee, he's the lead negotiator on several bills that will either become law in the next few months or have to start the process all over next year. The committee's top Republican, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, said yesterday he would just hope for the best.

Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): It will definitely slow things down, and we'll just keep him in our prayers and hope for a speedy recovery.

ROVNER: Even as Kennedy undergoes more medical tests today in Boston, President Bush will be adding another bill to the long list of Kennedy accomplishments. Set for signing today is a bill to bar the use of genetic information by employers or health insurers. Kennedy worked to get it passed for more than a decade.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: Read more about Senator Kennedy's condition and possible treatment at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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