Kennedy leaves Judiciary panel to make health care reform priority

In another sign that Democrats are deadly serious about the sweeping health care reforms that former Sen. Tom Daschle announced Friday, Sen. Ted Kennedy announced the same day he is stepping down from a ranking seat on the Judiciary Committee to devote his full energies to bringing about universal health care.

Daschle kicked off the Obama administration’s drive to bring meaningful health reform” to all Americans at a conference in Denver Friday.

According to a statement quoted in The Boston Globe:

“As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, 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 added.

Despite a diagnosis this spring of a lethal brain tumor, Kennedy has continued work preparing legislation to cover the nation’s uninsured. His staff has been meeting with interest groups and other senators to prepare a bill in time for President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Globe reports.

Universal health care has been a goal for Kennedy since his election to the Senate in 1962 — the same year he joined the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the Massachusetts Democrat has played key roles in Supreme Court confirmation hearings over the decades. Kennedy, the second-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary, said in a statement that he departs with “with great confidence in Chairman Leahy and my current colleagues on the Committee — and in the newly elected Democratic senators who will reap new opportunities from my stepping down.”

The move is partly in response to a plea from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who asked veteran senators to make room on some key committees for newcomers, including at least seven Democrats elected to the Senate in 2008.

“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, in a statement quoted by Politico.

The president of Families USA, a liberal health-advocacy group, told the Globe that Kennedy’s move would “enable him to focus his enormous energies on that task which he has said is his first, second and third priority.” Noting that the Judiciary Committee spends a lot of time on judicial appointments, Ron Pollack lauded Kennedy’s priorities: “If one is really devoted to an enormous cause that has been difficult to achieve in the past, it really is helpful to have that extra time to devote to that effort,” he said.

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