Republicans and Democrats came together on Friday to honor Senator Edward Kennedy, the standard-bearer for liberal Democrats and patriarch of America's fabled political dynasty, at a private memorial service.
The senator's body lay in repose in Boston where thousands of people gathered to pay their respects and preparations were underway to lay to him to rest on Saturday near the graves of his brothers President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
U.S. President Barack Obama was to give a eulogy at the funeral at a Roman Catholic basilica in Boston on Saturday and three of the four living ex-U.S. presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- were expected to attend, as were the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland. Former President George H. W. Bush was said to be unable to travel.
The Friday service was to bring together family members and longtime close friends such as former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Democrats Vice President Joe Biden and senators Christopher Dodd and John Kerry.
As plans were being made for memorial events over three days, some conservative commentators warned Democrats against politicizing Kennedy's death as a way to build momentum for an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system, which has run into a phalanx of vocal conservative opposition across the country in the last month.
That struggle grew all the more difficult without Kennedy, a powerful advocate of health care reform who said providing health insurance to all Americans was the cause of my life.
Some have suggested the party rally around the cause to honor Kennedy, who died of brain cancer on Tuesday at age 77. He had been in the Senate for nearly five decades.
But conservative commentators evoked the memory of the politically laden memorial service for Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone in 2002, which was transformed into a rally, with fervent speeches and boos for the opposition.
Talk show host Rush Limbaugh said he could foresee Democrats wanting to capitalize on Kennedy's death.
The senator's passing is going to give them the opportunity to use the sympathy play to get as much done in his name as possible, Limbaugh said on his national radio show.
At the John F. Kennedy presidential library where people lined up early to view the casket, Laura Wernick, 54, an architect from nearby Cambridge said she wondered about the effect of Kennedy's death on the healthcare reform efforts.
It will be interesting to see what Obama says on Saturday, if he says we have to do this to honor his memory, she said.
Democrats worked this week to find a way to quickly fill the senator's seat, thus ensuring them of the votes needed to overcome Republican objections to a healthcare vote this year. Kennedy himself had requested asked Massachusetts lawmakers to allow Governor Deval Patrick to name a temporary replacement to serve in his vacant Senate seat in the five months before a special election could be held.
Patrick and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry have called on state legislators to act quickly on that request.
Democratic congressional leaders Senators Harry Reid and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi were expected at Saturday's funeral along with some 40 other members of Congress and several cabinet members.
McCain, who had worked many years with Kennedy to reach consensus on controversial legislation, said on CNN's Larry King Live on Thursday Kennedy's wife Victoria had asked him to speak. And I told her I would move heaven and Earth, I would be there. And so I'm very honored to -- to have the opportunity to say a few words on behalf of the last lion of the Senate.
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen in Washington, writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; editing by Jackie Frank)