The memory of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy loomed over the Senate 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 majority 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.
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The sunrise vote was a dramatic end to a tortured debate in which Majority Leader Harry Reid struggled and ultimately succeeded to line up 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
The pre-dawn 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 tongues.
"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, Capitol Police bringing the mini-traffic jam near the Senate parking spaces to a halt as it passed. People in dark suits climbed the hill and lined up at the 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.
The galleries quickly filled with the guests of senators, as the lawmakers themselves trickled into the chamber and took their seats under the gaze of Kennedy's widow, Vicki.
As the vote progressed, she grew tearful.
"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.
Kennedy died of brain cancer last August.
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