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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

When the House takes up its health care overhaul this weekend, the name at the top of the bill is Michigan Democrat John Dingell. That means Dingell is a leading sponsor of the plan. Often to those of us on the outside, the sponsorship of a bill is just a name. But in this case, Dingell's history is intertwined with the history of the nation's health care debate, dating back most of a century. NPR's Julie Rovner has the story.

JULIE ROVNER: When House Democrats introduced the final version of their health bill last week, 83-year-old John Dingell - the longest serving member in the history of the body, spoke last, and he waved in front of the crowd, one of his most prized possessions - the gavel he used to preside over the House when it passed the bill creating Medicare back in 1965.

(Soundbite of applause)

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): And I'm going to lend this to whoever it is gets to preside over this legislation, because a good piece of wood doesn't wear out with one great event.

ROVNER: Dingell was still a fairly junior member 44 years ago when then-speaker, John McCormack, chose him to preside.

Representative DINGELL: Not because I had any merit in the matter, but because he was dad's great friend and because dad had been the guy who started the whole business of Medicare.

ROVNER: Dad being John Dingell, Sr., who the current congressman seceded after his father's death in 1955. The elder Dingell was no slouch when it came to legislating, he was one of the architects of the New Deal.

Representative DINGELL: And if you look - see the picture of Roosevelt signing Social Society, you'll see a little skinny Polack with a big broken nose and a moustache standing in back of him � that was my dad. And he was very, very proud of that.

ROVNER: But Social Security was just the beginning for the elder Dingell, says his son.

Representative DINGELL: He, together with Senators Jim Murray of Montana, and Robert Wagner of New York, introduced the first national health insurance bill in 1943.

ROVNER: That bill never became law, but on the first day of every Congress since then, the younger Dingell has introduced a national health insurance bill to honor his father's memory. And the good news?

Representative DINGELL: As I have revised the bill over the years, we found that about half of the original piece of legislation has been enacted into law.

ROVNER: That includes things like the National Institutes of Health universal vaccine programs and programs to care for mothers and children. What Dingell doesn't say is that most of those things were enacted under his stewardship, as the chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

California Democrat Henry Waxman chaired the panel's health subcommittee for many of the years Dingell headed the full committee. Waxman, this year, ousted Dingell, but that was over their differences on energy and environmental issues. Waxman says they've always seen eye to eye on health care.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): And that's the reason that we've been as successful as we have been in many of the health bills throughout the decades.

ROVNER: As chairman, Dingell was legendary for his sometimes overbearing style of interrogation, often berating witnesses. But for all his bluster, says Texas Republican Joe Barton, who last chaired the committee for his party, Dingell's actually a very humble person.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): He doesn't put his name on bills. So, to some extent, his legacy is hidden because it's just, you know, the Health Care Policy Act of whatever, or the National Institute of Health whatever.

ROVNER: Barton says if Dingell was like other members, and did attach his name to his work, there'd be literally dozens of Dingell acts in health care and other fields. But what Dingell still wants most is a bill to provide health insurance to all Americans. And will this be the one?

Representative DINGELL: I've always been an optimist.

ROVNER: Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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