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Mark Kelly lands in Senate, shrinking GOP majority

Kelly follows the path of others like Ohio’s John Glenn, pivoting from astronaut to lawmaker

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., arrives to the Capitol to be sworn in on Wednesday.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., arrives to the Capitol to be sworn in on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Mark Kelly took the oath of office Wednesday, following the path of Ohio’s John Glenn and others who once orbited the Earth and later landed on Capitol Hill.

The Arizona Democrat, a former NASA astronaut and Navy pilot who flew combat missions in the Persian Gulf, was sworn in Wednesday afternoon on the chamber floor by Vice President Mike Pence. Kelly, dressed in a suit, put his hand on a bible held by fellow Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema whose purple hair was accentuated by a long zebra print coat. 

Kelly took the oath as his twin brother, astronaut Scott Kelly, children and wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, watched on. After completing the oath, his fellow senators gave him a standing ovation. 

Kelly joins the chamber after Arizona’s election ballots were certified Monday. He beat out Republican Martha McSally, also a veteran, claiming the final two years of the late John McCain’s Senate term. 

McSally was appointed by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey to fill McCain’s seat after losing her 2018 Senate race to Sinema. (The Sinema-McSally race was to fill the open seat of retiring Republican Jeff Flake.) Kelly’s addition to the chamber shrinks the GOP’s Senate majority by one, to 52-48.

Kelly told reporters as he entered the Capitol Wednesday that he felt “great,” and later released a statement saying that he is ready to get to work with lawmakers across the aisle. 

“The legacy of this Arizona Senate seat, once held by Senator McCain, is one of independence,” he said. “I am committed to working with Republicans and Democrats and using science, data and facts to craft policies that will help us overcome our greatest challenges, including tackling this virus and getting our economy back on track.” 

After he was sworn in on the Senate floor, Kelly participated in a second ceremony, where he took the oath again in the Old Senate Chamber, a venue that allows photographers to document (they’re banned from the chamber) and family and others who aren’t allowed on the Senate floor to participate. 

Kelly and his family took photos after that ceremony and made small talk with Pence.

The vice president touted the Trump administration’s work on NASA during their chat, and Kelly told Pence he had just been speaking with Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz about the space program. 

“You’ll be an invaluable voice building on the progress we’ve made,” Pence said. “We’ve gotten the human space exploration back rolling where it needs to be.”

Kelly becomes the fourth astronaut elected to Congress. Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, was elected in 1974 and served until 1999. New Mexico Republican Harrison Schmitt was elected to the Senate in 1976. And Colorado Republican Jack Swigert was elected to the House in 1982 but died before he could take office.

Before his Senate bid, Kelly was known by many in Arizona as the husband of Giffords, who was seriously injured in a 2011 assassination attempt at an event near Tucson.

She sustained a complex traumatic brain injury, but has gone on to become the namesake leader of a movement to promote gun safety at the state and federal levels. The House Democratic Cloakroom in the Capitol is named in honor of her and the late Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif.

When asked her reaction to the ceremony, Giffords was brief — “Awesome, A-plus,” she said. She also let out a joyous “woo” after Kelly’s ceremonial swearing-in, as she held the bible where her husband had placed his hand. 

Kelly’s brother, Scott, agreed that the day marks an exciting milestone, though he said he had a “pretty good feeling” that his twin would prevail during the campaign. 

Scott Kelly said seeing his brother being sworn in was a “little surreal,” and definitely not something you ever expect.  

“But, you know,” he said. “I’m honored to have my brother now in the U.S. Senate.”

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