But that prospect, seemingly life-altering, descended on Edward M. Kennedy's colleagues Tuesday after word spread through the Capitol that the 46-year Senate veteran has brain cancer.
Democratic members were stunned. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the only senator with more seniority, wept in the Senate chamber.
"I'm having a hard time remembering a day in my 34 years here that I felt this badly," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Added Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): "My heart dropped when I heard the news."
It was practically all anyone could talk about.
Republicans who have demonized Kennedy for decades prayed for him. No one could contemplate life in the Senate without Kennedy's voice thundering through the chamber, bellowing support of the issues he has championed -- healthcare, education, civil rights, labor and immigration.
If Kennedy, 76, is forced to leave the Senate before his term is up in 2013 -- a possibility given the medical fight he faces -- his absence will be sharply felt. Already, on Tuesday, for example, the Senate took up a war-funding measure without one of its fiercest war critics present.
"We're pulling for our pal," said fellow Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry, who has been in contact with Kennedy and called him a "living legend."
Kennedy has cast more than 15,000 votes and crafted more than 2,500 bills, and is as much a monument in this city as its granite edifices.
Colleagues, though somber, predicted that he would be fighting to get back to work.
"Sen. Kennedy is a real fighter -- we all know that -- and I am betting on Sen. Kennedy," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is undergoing chemotherapy for a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease.
Practically, Kennedy's absence could complicate his party's legislative agenda. Democrats, usually joined by two independents, hold a 51-49 Senate majority. Even so, it has been difficult for Democrats to advance their initiatives because they need 60 votes to overcome filibusters and pass anything controversial.
Kennedy's illness already has underscored the fragility of the Democrats' hold on power in a chamber where Byrd is 90 and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is recovering from a 2006 brainhemorrhage.
His absence would leave Democrats without a key leader, and also without someone who can build political bridges in a partisan Senate.
"Without Kennedy, even for a short time, Congress would lose one of its most important consciences, and one of the few members who can cobble together bipartisan compromise," said Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. "That could well make it even harder for a dysfunctional Congress to function."
Kennedy cooperated with President Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education plan, and worked behind the scenes with administration officials in 2007 to assemble a team of lawmakers to write an ultimately doomed immigration bill. Even in the heat of tense backroom negotiations over the immigration bill, Kennedy's ideological opponents praised his hardheaded pragmatism and his work ethic.
"Ted Kennedy is a type that's become rare in Washington," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "On the one hand, he is a fierce partisan, proud of his beliefs and happy to fight with opponents. On the other hand, he can work with the other party to craft pragmatic compromises."
Pitney added: "His absence would take away a bridge that spans the partisan divide. Without Kennedy, the votes would be closer, the politics harsher and the tone less mature."
Kettl said the absence of the "dean of liberalism" also could alter the direction of the Democratic Party as it redefined what it considered the role of government, potentially with one of its own in the White House.
"The result could be a drift rightward, in a way that leaves [Sen. Barack] Obama more isolated on the left," Kettl said. "It would be hard to overestimate the role that Kennedy has played in the Senate, and what his loss -- even if temporary -- would mean to the Democrats."
Reid, speaking on the Senate floor, suggested that Kennedy might actually be watching as senators paid tribute.
"If Ted happens to be watching on C-SPAN, I want him to know that all of his brothers and sisters in the Senate are praying for him," Reid said.