In office for only five months to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. Paul Kirk (D-Mass.) gave an emotional farewell speech Thursday on the Senate floor that served as a belated eulogy to Kennedy's past and a plea for more bipartisanship in the Senate's future.

"Under the saddest of circumstances -- the loss of your colleague and our close friend, Senator Ted Kennedy -- my appointment to this office has allowed me to serve my Commonwealth and country in ways I could not have imagined just a few months ago," Kirk said "And these months have helped me to understand, even more personally, why Ted Kennedy devoted his public life to the work of the Senate; why he took such pride in its history and accomplishments; why he reached across the aisle to find common cause with allies who shared his hopes; and why, from time to time, he called upon this body to reach beyond the politics of the moment to achieve a greater good for the country’s future."


Kirk was tapped by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to succeed Kennedy on Sept. 24, after some wrangling among state legislators. Since joining the Democratic conference on Sept. 25, he helped deliver a critical 60th vote on numerous occasions, most notably the healthcare reform bill vote on Dec. 24.

Having always pledged not to seek the office long-term, Kirk's exit from the Senate was cemented with the loss last month of the seat by Democrat Martha Coakley to Republican Scott Brown. Brown was to be sworn in on Feb. 11, but abruptly changed his mind and decided to arrive in Washington on Thursday — a decision that "might have been handled a little more sensitively" to Kirk's staffers, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told reporters earlier in the day.

Kirk recalled that he first signed on as a member of Kennedy's staff 40 years ago, eventually rising to become the senator's chief of staff. He thanked his entire staff — many whom were holdovers from Kennedy's office — as well as Kennedy's Senate friends like Kerry and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

"We shared a bond of sorrow with all Senators at the realization that, after 47 years of legendary service, Ted Kennedy would no longer be occupying this desk. It was a time of emotional stirring to be sure," Kirk said. "But I found resolve in the certainty that Senator Kennedy himself would be the first to urge us to persevere and to carry on. It left no doubt that attention to Senate duties was the most obvious way I could honor his memory."

Kirk's 25-minute speech was attended by an audience of about a dozen Democrats, some dabbing their eyes with emotion as Kirk spoke at Kennedy's desk and a long line of Kennedy/Kirk staffers watched from a rear gallery bench. Kirk's voice broke slightly and occasionally as he spoke, with Democrats crowding around him and hugging him after he finished.

Kirk did not pass up the opportunity to speak out once again on Kennedy's signature issue of healthcare reform, urging the Senate "not to let the dust settle too much" before rejoining the fight.

No Republicans attended Kirk's speech, rankling one Democrat in attendance.

"Not one of them had the decency to show up," the Democratic senator said.

"Comprehensive health care reform must remain an urgent priority of this Congress," he said. "Will the people we represent watch the Senate that belongs to them revert to the calculated, politically polarized standoff that has alienated the country during these past few months? Will the Democratic majority, despite its still solid numerical advantage, be forced to cling to a 60 vote strategy as the only path to forward progress on matters small and large, procedural as well as substantive? Will the Republican minority misread the results from Massachusetts as vindication of a strategy to “just say No” to any measure proposed by a Democratic President of the United States or by their colleagues on this side of the aisle?"

Kirk ended his remarks with a plea for cooperation between the two parties.

"Bi-partisan comity and collaboration must replace the polarization that threatens to poison the atmosphere and impede the work of this body," he said. "The American people are filled with anxiety, anger and impatience. They are facing issues of job security, health security, retirement security, home security, tuition security, and the list goes on. Their crises should not be dividing this chamber; they should be uniting it."