WASHINGTON - Senator Edward M. Kennedy, under treatment for brain cancer, made a brief, triumphant return to the Senate yesterday, stunning fellow lawmakers with a surprise appearance to vote on a critical Medicare bill that is central to the Massachusetts senator's healthcare agenda.
His Senate colleagues had not expected to see Kennedy, who is being treated with radiation and chemotherapy, for several more weeks or longer. Some feared that Kennedy, 76, would never be well enough to return to the chamber where he has served for nearly 46 years.
But with just minutes to go in a vote to protect Medicare payments to doctors, Kennedy, beaming and laughing, walked through the back doors of the Senate chamber and gave Democrats the vote they needed to stop a Republican filibuster and pass the bill.
The entire chamber erupted in cheers and applause as Kennedy - flanked by his son, his best friend, the Democrats' presidential nominee, and his fellow Massachusetts senator - strode into the well of the Senate floor. Lawmakers from both parties mobbed him; most shook Kennedy's hand and a few pecked him on the cheek.
Then, Kennedy gazed up at the Senate clerk to do what he has done many thousands of times since he arrived in Washington in 1963, but has been unable to do for more than a month: vote.
When the din had subsided, Kennedy raised his arms jubilantly and cast his first vote, signaling not only a victory for the legislation, but a temporary win over a deadly disease that has kept him from the job he loves since he was diagnosed May 20.
"Aye," he yelled, his arms high in the air.
Again, the packed chamber - filled with senators, staff, and spectators, including his wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, and his niece, Caroline Kennedy - exploded in celebration at the extraordinary moment.
"It was just a rush of emotion. We love the man," said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the majority whip. "The fact that he would make the sacrifice, and take the risk of coming here, means so much."
"It was so Ted Kennedy to decide to come, and to cast the deciding vote on an issue he cares so deeply about and that he identifies with," said Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine. "Everybody on both sides [of the aisle] had tears in their eyes," she said.
The bill would void a GOP effort to cut Medicare payments to doctors by 10.6 percent. It also would weaken subsidies to health maintenance, discouraging seniors from abandoning Medicare for private HMOs.
Kennedy, who left quickly after the vote, told reporters afterward that he flew down from Massachusetts yesterday afternoon because he did not want to miss such an important vote on Medicare, a program he has fought to protect for decades. Kennedy's face seemed slightly bloated but he appeared otherwise well, with his shock of white hair and broad smile intact.
"I'm feeling fine - a little fatigued once in a while," Kennedy said as he left the Capitol.
The visit was an unusually well-kept secret on gossipy Capitol Hill, with most lawmakers unaware Kennedy was en route until he actually arrived in the building.
The dramatic appearance kept Republicans from revamping their political strategy to defeat the bill; expecting Kennedy to be absent, the GOP leadership had no time to scrounge for an extra vote to kill the bill when he arrived at the last minute.
Until Kennedy showed up, Senate Democrats had not been able to muster the 60 votes needed to stop a Republican filibuster. With his vote, nine additional Republicans came on board, ending the filibuster, 69 to 30. The measure passed and was sent to President Bush's desk yesterday afternoon.
Senate Democrats say they have enough support to override a potential presidential veto.
Kennedy had been following the Medicare bill from Cape Cod, and was disappointed to see that Democrats failed to pass the measure by one vote late last month, sources close to the senator said. Kennedy began considering making the trip for a second effort to pass the bill, and had several conversations with Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, in the past week.
The senator's doctors "weren't terribly pleased" with Kennedy's decision to make the trip down to Washington, said Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and one of Kennedy's closest friends. "But Ted is not in the habit of listening to doctors, so he surprised us all and he came here."
"Ted Kennedy wasn't going to let Medicare be destroyed," said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "So he rose to the challenge, came to work, and his vote made the difference."
Kennedy arrived surreptitiously through a side entrance of the Capitol, waiting in Reid's office until the vote. He was escorted into the chamber by Dodd; US Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, the senator's son; Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee; and Senator John F. Kerry.
Obama was so distracted by Kennedy's presence that Durbin had to nudge him, reminding him to vote on the Medicare bill.
Kennedy stopped first to shake the hand of Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia and the oldest and longest-serving member of the Senate. Byrd, who was in a wheelchair, had staked out the chamber door to greet his good friend.
Overwhelmed with emotion, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, approached Kennedy.
"We miss you, Ted," Leahy said. He noted later that Kennedy had replied with characteristic determination: "I'll be back," he said.