(Updates with Kennedy quote in paragraph 4)
By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON, July 9 A Medicare bill opposed by
the White House won final congressional approval on Wednesday
with the help of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who returned to the
Senate floor for the first time since brain surgery last
With Kennedy's dramatic and surprise appearance, he and
fellow Democrats overcame a Republican procedural hurdle and,
on a voice vote, passed the measure earlier approved by the
House of Representatives.
"Aye," declared a smiling Kennedy of Massachusetts -- a
Democratic icon, the party's leading liberal voice and a
longtime champion of expanding health care. Democratic as well
as Republican colleagues applauded.
"Win, lose or draw, I wanted to be here. I wasn't going to
take the chance that my vote could make the difference,"
Kennedy said after the vote.
The bill would cancel a scheduled 11 percent pay cut to
doctors who treat Medicare patients. It is largely funded by
cutting about $13 billion in reimbursements to insurers such as
UnitedHealth Group Inc (UNH.N) and Aetna Inc (AET.N) that
contract with the Medicare program.
The Bush administration opposes any effort to trim payments
to private health plans. The president has said the move would
limit plan choices for seniors. But doctors and the seniors'
group AARP waged an aggressive lobbying effort to prevent the
doctors' pay cut.
"This is pretty much a done deal. The president is not
going to win this fight," Ipsita Smolinski, a health care
analyst with JP Morgan, said after the Senate vote.
The White House had no comment.
Medicare is the federal health insurance program for 44
million elderly and disabled Americans. About 10 million
seniors use the private plans known as Medicare Advantage.
Last month, an effort to clear a Republican procedural
hurdle on the bill in the 100-member Senate came up one vote
short of the needed 60.
After Kennedy cast his vote to end the roadblock, nine
Republicans who had earlier opposed the measure voted for the
popular election-year bill.
Kennedy underwent surgery for removal of a malignant brain
tumor on June 3. He has been undergoing chemotherapy and was
not expected to return to the Senate until at least late this
But in a telephone call late Tuesday with Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, Kennedy said he wanted to
come back early to help in the fight for Medicare, aides said.
Kennedy entered the Senate to a standing ovation,
accompanied by his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island
Democrat. Following behind was presumptive Democratic
presidential nominee Barack Obama, an Illinois senator.
Tourists in the normally quiet visitors gallery rose,
applauded and cheered Kennedy, his party's leading liberal
voice. Kennedy's wife, Vicki, and niece, Caroline Kennedy
Schlossberg, were among those in the packed gallery.
The bill garnered a veto-proof majority of 69 in favor,
with 30 opposed. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the
only member of the Senate not to vote. He was campaigning as
his party's presumptive presidential nominee. He told reporters
traveling with him he would have opposed the measure.
The shares of companies that operate one lucrative version
of the Medicare Advantage program, called "fee-for-service,"
will be weaker on Thursday, predicted Lehman Brother analyst
"The big losers are certainly anyone who is playing in the
private fee for service program," Clapsis said, citing Humana
Inc (HUM.N), Universal American Corp (UAM.N) and Coventry
Health Care Inc CVH.N.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Thomas Ferraro;
Editing by Andre Grenon/Jeffrey Benkoe)