WASHINGTON - The memory of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy loomed over the Senate on Thursday when his weary colleagues moved his life's work, health care reform, to the brink of reality.
"He's having a merry Christmas in heaven," said an emotional Sen. Paul Kirk, D-Mass., who was appointed to fill the seat after Kennedy succumbed to brain cancer in August. Kirk said it was an honor to essentially cast Kennedy's vote as Democrats passed the Senate's version of a bill that would extend insurance to 30 million Americans.
"It's the proudest public moment of my life," Kirk said.
The sunrise vote was a dramatic end to a tortured debate in which Majority Leader Harry Reid struggled to line up 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
The procession to the Senate had the feel of a bittersweet, Christmas Eve memorial, with Kennedy's close friends and former staffers nearly filling the galleries, his name on the tips of everyone's tongue.
"With Sen. Ted Kennedy's booming voice in our ears, with his passion in our hearts, we say, as he said, the work goes on, the cause endures," said Reid, D-Nev.
Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade lit up a nearly empty Pennsylvania Avenue at 6:30 a.m. EST as it approached the Capitol. People in dark suits lined up at security entrances.
Michigan Democrat John Dingell, at 83 the longest-serving member of the House, used two crutches to navigate the ice outside the Senate chamber as he made his way inside with his wife, Debbie, at his side.
There was early talk about perhaps naming the eventual overhaul bill after Kennedy, Dingell or both, for their generations-long work on the issue. Dingell has introduced national health insurance legislation every Congress since succeeding his father, who died as a House member in 1955.
The galleries quickly filled with guests of senators as the lawmakers themselves trickled into the chamber and took their seats under the gaze of Kennedy's widow, Vicki, who grew tearful as the vote progressed.
"Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy," intoned Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the longest-serving member of Congress in history, as he cast his vote for the bill.
President Barack Obama, who had been mentored and endorsed by the late senator, called Vicki Kennedy with congratulations after the vote.
"Ted Kennedy is up there smiling," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
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