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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Today on Capitol Hill, the first committee takes the first official action on a bill that would overhaul health care. That bill bears the name of Edward Kennedy, who's made health care his signature issue in his five decades in the Senate. Kennedy is now undergoing treatment for brain cancer, and so he won't be there to drop the gavel at his own committee. NPR's Julie Rovner has this look at what it means for the health-care debate that the senator is absent.

JULIE ROVNER: Senior Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee gathered yesterday in the cavernous Russell Caucus Room to preview the debate that begins this morning. But a familiar, booming, Boston voice was missing. Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd, who's been filling in, was quick to apologize.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): I'm a designated hitter until he gets back here, and no one wants him back here more than I do, to be a part of this and to lead this effort. He means so much to this.

ROVNER: Dodd was talking, of course, about his friend and committee chairman Ted Kennedy. Kennedy's been mostly physically absent from the Senate for the last year, receiving treatment for a brain tumor. But he's been doing a lot of work from home, both here in Washington and up in Massachusetts.

Mr. RON POLLACK (Families USA): He is in constant contact with his colleagues in the White House, and he's got a really, very talented, thoughtful staff.

ROVNER: That's Ron Pollack of the consumer group Families USA. Kennedy won't be here for the start of what could be a committee drafting process that might take more than a week, but Pollack and some aides say they're not ruling out seeing him at some later, perhaps more critical point in the process.

Mr. POLLACK: I think Senator Kennedy will play a very important role, and I have no doubt he will play a very effective role in the most critical stage, when we go to conference between the House and Senate bills, which are likely to be quite different from one another.

ROVNER: That probably won't take place until the fall. Meanwhile, one thing Kennedy's absence means is that he's not around to counter the criticism of his proposal, claims like this one made just yesterday by Texas Republican John Cornyn.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): We find that the proposal by Senator Kennedy not only costs more than a trillion dollars, but it also basically pushes many people from the health coverage they have now into the uninsured ranks and presumably, ultimately, into a government plan.

ROVNER: That's not exactly what the Congressional Budget Office said. In fact, the current version of the bill set to come before the committee doesn't even include a government plan. Whether to have one and what it might look like is one of the things members are expected to debate.

A partial estimate of the bill did, however, suggest that the measure could, indeed, cost a trillion dollars over the next 10 years. John Rother of the consumer group AARP says that while Kennedy has been literally phoning it in, his physical absence has been felt.

Mr. JOHN ROTHER (AARP): His lack of physical presence is offset to some extent by, you know, very competent staff. But in terms of dealing directly with other senators, there's really no substitute for having him there.

ROVNER: Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, another senior member of the committee, agrees. Part of it, says Harkin, is simply Kennedy's long history and in-depth knowledge of the health-care issue. But there's also something more.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): As we always say around here, if you want to get a bill through, give it to Kennedy. He knows how to get things done. He just knows how to make the deals and how to get everybody working together.

ROVNER: Among those who've worked most closely with Kennedy is Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. Over the years, Hatch and Kennedy have cut a lot of deals, even though the senators are mostly ideological opposites.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): His heart is right. The question is, can his heart reach fulfillment? And to do that, he knows it's got to be bipartisan.

ROVNER: And so far, that bipartisanship part doesn't seem to be working very well long distance. But the legislative part of the debate is just now getting under way.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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