Veteran Senators Battle Illness, Age

Sen. Arlen Specter, who has been promoting his book about beating cancer, is dealing with a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease. Meanwhile, 90-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd counters whispers that he's too frail to continue chairing the appropriations committee with a feisty diatribe on the Iraq war at a hearing Wednesday.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

On Capitol Hill today, two senior U.S. senators made appearances that seemed designed to quell questions about their health. Each, in their own way, sought to demonstrate that they can still do their jobs.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: It was high noon when Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter appeared at a news conference he'd called at the Capitol. The 78-year-old lawmaker had just learned he has a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease, and will have to begin 12 weeks of chemotherapy next week.

NORRIS: I consider it as another bump in the road. I had a lot of bumps and I've got good shock absorbers. I had a vigorous game of squash today with a guy slightly less than half my age; if you want authentication I'll be glad to provide it.

WELNA: Specter said he planned to keep a full schedule and run for a sixth term two years from now.

At that same moment, 90-year-old West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd was gaveling in a hearing as chairman of the Senate Appropriation's Committee, and he began with words of encouragement for Specter.

NORRIS: While many of us know what it's like to face a health challenge. I know this man. His strong fighting spirit will quickly lead him on faster recovery.

WELNA: Byrd could easily have been speaking about himself. The longest serving senator ever is still recovering from a fall earlier this year. And there's been a lot of talk lately about whether it's time for him to relinquish the reins of the spending committee. As if to show he's still up to the job, Byrd called in White House Budget Director Jim Nussle to defend the Bush administrations request for $108 billion in emergency war funding.

Nussle told Byrd it was an honor to come before him.

NORRIS: If I could write the contract today to look as good as you do today, Mr. Chairman, I would - I'd sign up for it. And I appreciate the honor of being before you here today. Thank you.

NORRIS: Thank you. You get an A-plus for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: I'm doing the best I can, Mr. Chairman.

NORRIS: You've done all right.

WELNA: Byrd then proceeded to read a diatribe against the war funding request.

NORRIS: And deplete our budget to pay these endless, endless, ever-clamoring requests for more money to fund this dreadful, intolerable, hateful war in Iraq.

WELNA: When the two-hour hearing ended, Utah Republican Bob Bennett had only praise for Byrd.

NORRIS: He did fine, as far as I can tell, he called on everybody in order. He was lucid in his own comments. I disagree with his comments, but certainly, he was capable of making them.

WELNA: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein says one simply doesn't discuss the frailty of a colleague.

NORRIS: And the Senate has always been very respectful of health problems. I think probably because nobody knows who might have the next one.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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