Massachusetts on Thursday named a Democratic replacement to fill the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat, giving President Barack Obama a vital extra vote in his health care reform battle.
Governor Deval Patrick named Paul Kirk, 71, as an interim replacement to Kennedy, whose death last month left the Senate one vote short of a critical 60 votes needed to block any Republican efforts to stall debate on a health care bill.
The additional Senate vote is more needed than ever, as Obama fights to push health reform through a skeptical US Congress.
“This appointment is a profound honor,” said Kirk, making clear that his appointment was only temporary until new elections could be held.
“Consistent with Senator Kennedy’s wishes and expectations of the governor and legislators, I shall not be a candidate in the special election for the United States Senate in December or January.”
Obama issued a statement calling Kirk an “excellent” pick.
“I am pleased that Massachusetts will have its full representation in the United States Senate in the coming months, as important issues such as health care, financial reform and energy will be debated,” he said.
“Paul Kirk is a distinguished leader, whose long collaboration with Senator Kennedy makes him an excellent, interim choice to carry on his work until the voters make their choice in January.”
Kennedy, a US Senate legend with more than 40 years’ tenure, died on August 25, aged 77, from brain cancer.
Meanwhile, another Senate Democrat, the ailing, veteran senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, was released from the hospital Thursday after suffering a fall earlier in the week.
Byrd, 91, said in a statement that he is receiving antibiotics for a possible infection but otherwise “looking forward to engaging in the upcoming debate and votes on health care reform, one of the most critical issues facing this Congress.”
In making his appointment, Patrick said that early in his career, Kirk had worked as a “close and loyal advisor” to Kennedy, and is well-placed to provide continuity and consistency to the job.
The Massachusetts governor also noted that the appointment comes as Congress considers “economic and job creation bills, education and transportation funding, financial regulations climate change legislation,” among other pressing legislation, including health care reform.
“Senator Kennedy courageously argued that health care should be a right and not a privilege,” Patrick said, adding that President Obama and the Congress have committed to act” within the next several weeks on a health care reform package.
Before Patrick could appoint Kirk, the Massachusetts legislature this week had to alter the method by which a US Senate vacancy could be filled.
State law previously called for a special election to be held once a Senate vacancy arises, a process that could have taken months.
A state legislature changed the law allowed Patrick to appoint an interim replacement until an election could be held.
The place-holder appointment was in keeping with the wishes of late senator Kennedy, and that of his family, which also hailed Patrick’s “outstanding” pick of Kirk.
“Today is a wonderful day for the people of Massachusetts and the country,” a family statement said.
“Senator Kennedy and Paul were close friends and they worked together for many years, starting with Paul’s tenure on the Senator’s staff in Washington four decades ago.
“Side by side they fought many battles for progress and social justice, and nothing could be more fitting than for Paul now to carry on that fight,” the statement said.
Kirk’s soon-to-be Senate colleague representing the Massachusetts delegation, Senator John Kerry, shared the podium during the announcement and called Kirk a “superb” choice.
“This is a caretaker appointment, a gentle transition, a kind of stewardship — and Paul Kirk will be a superb steward of this seat.”