WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is gone, but his legacy is vital to President Barack Obama's high-stakes case for health care overhaul as his party struggles on Capitol Hill to agree on its terms.
First lady Michelle Obama will host the late senator's widow, Vicki, in the gallery over the House chamber where Obama is to address a joint session of Congress Wednesday night.
"On August 25, 2009, Sen. Kennedy passed away after battling brain cancer for more than a year," the White House statement read. "Vicki Kennedy was a partner in her husband's lifelong fight for health care reform and shares his commitment and passion to make health care a right and not a privilege."
Five other Kennedys will attend the speech as guests of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One of them, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., the late senator's son, will have an elevated role beyond those of his House colleagues. Patrick will help escort Obama into the chamber, then join his siblings in the gallery: his brother Ted Jr., sister Kara and her two children, Grace, 14, and Max, 12.
Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, invoked Ted Kennedy's name 11 times during a brief news conference Wednesday and set aside three hours on Thursday for tributes to him.
Kennedy called health care reform his life's work and a key focus of his 47 years in the Senate. His death last month was widely mourned in Congress, even by political opponents who respected his ability to thunder liberal dogma from the Senate floor while cutting complex deals, however imperfect, away from it.
That's what Obama is urging his own party to do now — make some kind of deal toward extending health care to every American who seeks it.
However, congressional Democrats are threatening to use an arcane procedure called reconciliation to push through any plan on which they can agree — with or without Republican support. That would mean that the possibility of striking a bipartisan agreement, Kennedy's strength on the toughest of legislation, had failed.
Getting something that can be called health care reform passed into law this year remains the goal, "in the spirit of Ted Kennedy," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.