msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/9/2009 10:03:42 PM ET 2009-09-10T02:03:42

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.

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During his address Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress, Obama revealed that Kennedy, D-Mass., wrote a letter to be delivered posthumously, in which Kennedy expressed confidence that a health care overhaul would pass this year. He said the letter from “my beloved friend” was among many he had received from “Americans counting on us to succeed.”

The letter was written in May, after Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, to be delivered upon his death. Kennedy died Aug. 25.

Obama quoted Kennedy as saying, “What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

“I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days — the character of our country,” the president said, saying he hoped “that large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling.”

“It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling,” he said. “It, too, is part of the American character — our ability to stand in other people’s shoes, a recognition that we are all in this together, that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”

Michelle Obama welcomes widow
The president’s wife, Michelle, hosted the late senator’s widow, Vicki, in the gallery over the House chamber Wednesday night.

“On August 25, 2009, Senator 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 attended the speech as guests of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. One of them, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., the late senator’s son, had an elevated role beyond those of his House colleagues. Patrick helped escort Obama into the chamber, then joined his siblings in the gallery: his brother Ted Jr., his sister Kara and her two children, Grace, 14, and Max, 12.

Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, invoked Edward Kennedy’s name 11 times during a brief news conference Wednesday and set aside three hours Thursday for tributes to Kennedy.

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.

Never mind that 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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