Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called for reinforcements and Hawaii's governor responded, dispatching Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to Washington to take over the state's empty Senate seat on Thursday, ahead of a series of potentially critical votes.
Mr. Schatz, a Democrat, hitched a ride on Air Force One, returning with President Obama, who ducked out of his Hawaiian vacation to return to Washington.
Mr. Schatz was sworn in Thursday afternoon by Vice President Joseph R. Biden and cast his first vote later in the afternoon, literally giving a thumbs-up to an amendment to shorten an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
He now will be available to vote with Democrats as lawmakers bicker over how — or whether — to avoid tax increases and spending cuts in less than a week.
"Everyone seems to agree that we want to avoid this. There are some practical, balanced approaches that have been set forth," Mr. Schatz told reporters traveling with the president. "And now it's time, and we're really running out of time, to negotiate a settlement, which I believe no one will be thrilled with. But the only thing worse than a solution to the 'fiscal cliff' would be actually going over it."
Mr. Obama and Mr. Schatz had a brief conversation aboard Air Force One, though the incoming senator said he slept for most of the overnight ride.
Mr. Schatz said he expects to support Mr. Obama's agenda in Washington.
He fills the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, an icon in Hawaii politics and a powerful but quiet member of the Senate.
Mr. Inouye's death left Mr. Reid's effective majority at 52-46, with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois having missed more than a year of business while recovering from a stroke.
On Saturday, Mr. Reid said he asked Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie to appoint a successor "with due haste."
"It is critically important to ensure that the people of Hawaii are fully represented in the pivotal decisions the Senate will be making before the end of the year," he said.
Under normal circumstances where bills pass based on a majority of those voting, a single missing vote would matter somewhat. But that's heightened in the Senate, where an absolute 60-vote threshold rules on many questions, and the onus is on the majority to rally its troops.
Last week, for example, Senate Republicans managed to alter the structure of the emergency spending bill for Hurricane Sandy relief when Democrats were unable to muster 60 votes to overcome a budget objection. Mr. Schatz wouldn't have made an immediate difference — he would have been the 58th vote — but could prove pivotal as the Senate holds further debate on the Sandy bill or on fiscal cliff votes.
Hawaii will begin next year with two new senators. The state's junior Senate member, Daniel K. Akaka, also a Democrat, is retiring and will be replaced by Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono.
In selecting Mr. Schatz, Mr. Abercrombie dismissed the request of Mr. Inouye, who reportedly had said he wanted the state's other House member, Rep. Colleen W. Hanabusa, to take his seat.
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