updated 12/5/2008 6:05:57 PM ET 2008-12-05T23:05:57

Sen. Edward Kennedy said Friday he is stepping down from his Senate Judiciary Committee post to focus on achieving a breakthrough on health care reform. The Massachusetts Democrat said he was hopeful of achieving progress with President-elect Barack Obama taking over the White House. Kennedy, who is fighting a malignant brain tumor, chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and was a strong Obama backer during the 2008 campaign.

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"I expect to lead a very full agenda in the next Congress, including working with President Obama to guarantee affordable health care, at long last, for every American," Kennedy said in a statement. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and I intend to make the most of it."

Kennedy, 76, has championed universal health care coverage for more than four decades in the Senate. He has been consulting with staffers, other senators and health care advocates for months on a new blueprint for extending coverage.

Kennedy's statement also noted that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada had asked Democrats to reduce their committee assignments to give junior lawmakers more opportunities.

Kennedy had a seizure in May and underwent surgery in June for the brain tumor. After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, he has increased his public activity. He spent time working on health care reform while recovering at his Cape Cod and Washington homes. He has held several video conferences with lawmakers and staff on the issue in recent months.

He returned to work in the Senate last month for the first time since last summer. In July, he made a surprise return to Capitol Hill to vote on a Medicare bill.

Kennedy is vacationing with his family in Florida and expects to return to Washington when Congress reconvenes in early January.

As a senior member of the Judiciary panel, Kennedy has been a leader on civil rights issues and immigration issues. He played a key role opposing Robert Bork, the conservative whose Supreme Court nomination failed in 1987.

"I remain deeply committed to civil rights, equal opportunities and immigration reform, and I will always be involved in those important debates and discussions," Kennedy said.

Earlier this week, Kennedy received an honorary degree from his alma mater at Harvard University.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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