WASHINGTON -- Paul Kirk never figured to upstage the legend whose death paved his road to the Senate. Even so, the stylish Massachusetts lawyer and former Democratic Party chairman has taken on such a low profile as Edward M. Kennedy's successor that some worry he's hindering prospects for Kennedy's signal health care cause.
"He's pretty milquetoast," said Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social science at Boston University and author of "A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage."
"Paul Kirk has made a seamless transition into his new role," countered Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
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Kirk vowed early on to push hard for what his longtime pal Kennedy saw as his life's work -- extending quality health care coverage to all Americans. But two months later, he has mostly stayed on the sidelines, reluctant to speak out.
His biggest plunge into the health care fight was a little-noticed speech on the Senate floor citing the urgent need for health care reform, praising bipartisanship and lauding a government-run insurance option, the so-called "public option."
Abortion looms as a major stumbling block as Senate Democrats press for a sweeping health care plan. Yet Kirk has offered few specifics about his views.
It's the kind of fight that Kennedy, a staunch abortion rights backer, would have relished. Kirk, however, is holding his fire.
"He's not going to get into hypotheticals," his spokesman, Keith Maley, said recently.
Abortion rights supporters are concerned about restrictions put in the House-passed health care bill. Leaders of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus have called them an unprecedented limitation on women's access to coverage for abortion services.
The House legislation would bar a new government-run insurance plan from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. It also would prohibit any health plan receiving federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage.
Maley would only say that Kirk supports a law that has prevented federal funds from being used for abortions for over three decades.
Since coming to the Senate, Kirk has largely avoided the public spotlight. He declined to be interviewed for this story. He's there as an interim replacement for Kennedy until an election is held in January.
"I'm sure he's going to follow whatever the Democratic caucus tells him to do," Whalen said. "He's just there to cast his vote (for health care reform). That's it. I wouldn't call him a statesman. A less charitable person might call him a lackey."
Soon after Kennedy died last summer, Democrats scrambled to overturn Massachusetts election law so Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick could appoint Kennedy's interim successor. Kennedy had asked for the election law change before he died, lending a sense of urgency to the matter for many Democrats. The White House lobbied hard for it, too.
Patrick insisted the hurry-up appointment was necessary because health care and other issues facing Congress were "too important to Massachusetts for us to be one voice short."
After raucous debate, the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature gave Patrick the power to appoint a temporary replacement for Kennedy. GOP lawmakers howled because the switch came five years after the Legislature had stripped Republican Mitt Romney of the same appointive powers while he was governor.
Because the legislation would not take effect immediately, Patrick had to sign an emergency letter before appointing Kirk.
Republicans complained it was a power grab aimed at giving Democrats a potential 60th vote needed to overcome any GOP filibusters on health care in the narrowly divided Senate.
"(Kirk) is not a strong voice or player on the health care issue, he's simply another vote in favor of it," said Rob Gray, a Massachusetts GOP political consultant. "Let's face it, that's all the Democrats were looking for when they changed the law."
Kirk, a 71-year-old Boston attorney named as executor of Kennedy's will, is no stranger to the Senate. He knows many key players from his days as party chief. He also was a top Kennedy aide for eight years as well as a former lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies.
Kirk registered as a federal lobbyist a decade ago. While Kirk would be banned from lobbying for two years after his appointment ends, he would retain Senate floor privileges after his departure.
Kirk will serve until voters choose a replacement in a Jan. 19 special election. He's pledged not to seek re-election to his new seat.
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