By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the liberal icon who has spent more than four decades at the forefront of social-change efforts in Congress, has a cancerous brain tumor, physicians at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital said yesterday.
A biopsy of a portion of Kennedy's brain identified a malignant glioma as the cause of the seizure that hospitalized him Saturday, according to a statement by Lee H. Schwamm, the hospital's vice chairman of neurology, and Larry Ronan, the 76-year-old senator's primary-care physician. A glioma is the most common type of brain tumor, accounting for more than half of the 20,000 or so diagnosed in the United States each year. The prognosis for patients is poor, according to the National Institutes of Health.
News of the diagnosis swept through the Capitol as Republican and Democratic senators were attending their respective weekly policy lunches. Some senators later wept as they publicly considered the mortality of a man who has been at the center of some of the nation's most important legislative issues for nearly half a century.
Senators had been girding for major fights this week over Iraq war funding, domestic spending and veterans' educational benefits ahead of the Memorial Day break -- battles in which Kennedy would have taken center stage.
"He's a strong guy and has great heart, and we're confident he's going to be back here," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate, said before his voice broke and tears welled in his eyes.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 90, the chamber's elder statesman and the longest-serving senator in history, wept on the Senate floor. "Ted, Ted, I love you, and I miss you," he said through sobs.
The diagnosis was a grave turn of events after the weekend's developments. Initial reports Saturday indicated that Kennedy may have suffered a stroke, but that ominous news soon gave way to more optimistic accounts of the senator joking with family, eating a seafood dinner and watching Boston Red Sox games.
Kennedy's doctors said yesterday that "he has had no further seizures, remains in good overall condition, and is up and walking around the hospital." They said they will determine his course of treatment after further testing and analysis.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he received a phone call from Kennedy's wife, Victoria, at 1:05 p.m., just as he was entering the Democratic lunch. During the Republican lunch, news of Kennedy's diagnosis came across one lawmaker's BlackBerry. Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), who worked with Kennedy on immigration legislation but jousted with him on abortion, led the Republicans in prayer.
Statements poured out of congressional offices and Bush administration suites and from the campaign trail, expressing concern for the senator who has the third-longest tenure ever and is the surviving patriarch of American political royalty.
President Bush, who teamed with Kennedy to pass his signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind education law, and then broke with him over Iraq and the conduct of the fight against terrorism, said in a statement: "Ted Kennedy is a man of tremendous courage, remarkable strength, and powerful spirit. Our thoughts are with Senator Kennedy and his family during this difficult period. We join our fellow Americans in praying for his full recovery."
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), hailed by Kennedy as the standard-bearer of the legacies of his fallen brothers, John and Robert Kennedy, said: "Senator Kennedy has been a fighter for his entire life, and I have no doubt that he will fight as hard as he can to get through this. He has been there for the American people during some of our country's most trying moments, and now that he's facing his own, I ask all Americans to keep him in our thoughts and prayer."
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said, "I have described Ted Kennedy as the last lion in the Senate, and I have held that view because he remains the single most effective member of the Senate."
An aide said Kennedy watched some of the tributes from his colleagues and was "overwhelmed." Hundreds of phone calls, 19 bouquets and more than 2,500 e-mails reached Kennedy's office. King Abdullah II of Jordan sent an orchid. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sent a get-well note, as did actors Glenn Close and Martin Sheen, rock musician Don Henley, Nancy Reagan, and Al Gore, according to a Kennedy staff member, who requested anonymity out of respect for the family's privacy.
Always a lightning rod for conservatives outside the Capitol, Kennedy's stature in the Senate can hardly be overstated. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the chamber floor to call him "one of the most important figures to serve in this body in its history."
Kennedy's fingerprints can be found on landmark legislation on civil rights, bilingual and special education, and immigration; on laws that guarantee health care for poor children; and on the composition of the Supreme Court. He has gone into battle with McCain for tobacco control and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but he has fought fiercely with McCain and other Republicans over the Iraq war, civil liberties and labor policies.
Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has oversight of most social legislation, from health care to the minimum wage. He has also chaired the Judiciary Committee and helped oversee Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
"We just don't feel like going on. He is the center of the Senate, the heart, mind and soul. Just pray," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Kennedy was elected in 1962 to fill the seat once held by his brother John -- who two years earlier was elected president -- and faced just one tough reelection fight, in 1994, against Mitt Romney, who would be elected Massachusetts governor in 2002.
He now trails only Byrd and the late Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in years served in the Senate. Last August, he cast his 15,000th vote, something only Byrd and Thurmond had done before him.
Not known to focus on such milestones, Kennedy was unaware of the achievement until staff members called him several weeks later while he was vacationing on Cape Cod.
If Kennedy were to become so ill that he is forced to vacate his Senate seat, Massachusetts would use its complicated new law of succession. The measure was instituted in 2004, when state Democrats feared that the Republican governor -- Romney -- would appoint a GOP senator if Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) defeated Bush in that year's presidential election.
The law did away with gubernatorial appointments, the method most states use to fill Senate vacancies, and established a special election to be held 145 to 160 days after a vacancy occurs.
When Kerry seemed on the verge of winning the presidency, several members of the Massachusetts House delegation positioned themselves for his Senate seat. Among those considered to have been eyeing it were former congressman Joseph Kennedy (D), a son of Robert F. Kennedy; he still has more than $2 million in leftover campaign funds.
Staff writer Rob Stein contributed to this report.