WASHINGTON - A beaming Senator Edward M. Kennedy returned to work in Washington yesterday, exactly six months after confronting a grave threat to his health, and declared himself ready to help lead an aggressive push for healthcare reform.
"I feel fine," the Massachusetts Democrat said, flanked by his wife, Vicki, and his two Portuguese water dogs, Splash and Sunny, as he entered a staff meeting to a roar of applause in the ornate Russell Caucus Room on Capitol Hill. "I'm looking forward to the session . . . I'm looking forward, particularly, to working with Barack Obama on healthcare," the 76-year-old veteran lawmaker told reporters.
Kennedy steadied his walk with his father's cane - the same cane the senator used after surviving a 1964 plane crash, and which he has lent to two of his colleagues, Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and John Warner of Virginia - and his voice trembled slightly when he spoke. But overall, Kennedy looked remarkably spry for a man battling a malignant glioma, a fast-growing brain tumor that was diagnosed after Kennedy had a seizure in May.
His color was strong, and he sported a full head of his characteristic white hair. He appeared to have lost a substantial amount of weight and displayed none of the puffiness he showed during his last ap pearance on Capitol Hill on July 9, when he made an emotion- laden visit to cast a critical vote on a Medicare funding bill.
While the senator is still receiving treatment, he didn't look tired as he prepared to get to work on issues facing the incoming Congress, with healthcare as his stated top priority.
"We're hopeful this will be a prime item on the agenda," Kennedy said. Asked whether he expected President-elect Obama to sign a healthcare bill early in his term, Kennedy responded, "Yes."
In the Russell Caucus Room Kennedy was greeted by a large banner that said "Welcome Back Senator!" and a round of applause heard well beyond the closed doors of the room. The 100 or so personal Senate office aides and committee staffers lunched on food from Legal Sea Foods - a favorite of the Massachusetts delegation - as they discussed the upcoming agenda.
Kennedy plans to work several hours a day from his Washington home and expects to be in the Senate this week for the special session, an aide said. Yesterday's appearance marked the first time that many people in the Capitol - including Kennedy's colleagues - had seen the Massachusetts lawmaker since his July vote to restore planned cuts in Medicare payments to doctors.
Kennedy also spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August, delivering a passionate endorsement of Obama and an appeal for healthcare reform and civil rights even as he fought back the pain from a kidney stone he had passed just hours before he spoke. Kennedy had been among the most influential Democratic elders to embrace Obama during his primary race showdown with Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
Kennedy did not meet with his Senate colleagues yesterday, but was greeted by a delighted Boston-born Capitol police officer as he entered the building. He chatted briefly with Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat interested in taking over Obama's Senate seat, when Jackson and Kennedy ran into each other in the hallway.
"He's pumped and ready," Senator John F. Kerry said of his Massachusetts colleague's return. "This is so super-exciting. I just feel emotional about it."
Kennedy has continued to conduct Senate work from his home in Hyannis Port, working with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt to extend the federal rules allowing Massachusetts to continue its healthcare plan and crafting a major national service program with Kennedy's colleague and friend, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. Kennedy has also held video conferences with his staff and fellow members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which Kennedy chairs, to discuss the panel's upcoming agenda.
Kennedy moved back to his Washington home from the Cape last month when the weather turned colder and his beloved sailing season ended.
While some of Kennedy's colleagues have worried he would not return to the Senate, Kennedy has been adamant about playing a role in moving quickly on the universal healthcare he has spent several decades trying to achieve. Not only is he aware of the potential limits of his own health, but he also wants to exploit the opportunities offered by Democratic control of the White House and Congress in January.
Senate aides said he declined a request by Clinton to create a subcommittee that would allow her to lead the effort, indicating that he felt well enough to spearhead the task. Since that request, Clinton has become a contender for secretary of state, which would take her out of the healthcare debate on Capitol Hill.
The Senate this week is expected to extend unemployment benefits to respond to the escalating jobless rate. Democratic lawmakers are hoping to reach agreement on some plan to help the embattled auto industry. A push for a broader stimulus plan appears nearly dead, since President Bush and GOP senators are opposed to it.
An automobile package is still possible, although lawmakers disagree on the details. Democrats want to take $25 billion from the $700 billion allocated for a financial services industry bailout, while leading Republicans want the money to come from an existing Energy Department program.
"We're going to be dealing with this later in the week," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said yesterday, indicating that there was room for negotiation.