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Many farewell speeches, one message: Senate must learn to cooperate

Why We Wrote This

To watch these senators from the press gallery is to be reminded of their genuine interest in serving their constituents – and of the challenge of politics today, our congressional correspondent writes.

Francine Kiefer
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota meets with a young constituent on Dec. 11. The girl gave her a photo book of her advocacy for the senator, who lost her reelection campaign. ‘This is the best present I ever got,’ Senator Heitkamp told her young advocate.

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It’s an emotional time in the Senate, as those who won’t be returning say goodbye to colleagues, staff, and constituents – notably through reflective “farewell” speeches on the Senate floor, where senators sometimes have to pause to collect themselves. Whether the comments come from one-termers like Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota or long-timers like Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, one theme connects their messages: Senators must work together if they are going to address America’s tough problems. “The Senate as an institution is in crisis,” said Senator Hatch, who after 42 years is the longest-serving Republican senator in history. “The committee process lies in shambles, regular order is a relic of the past, and compromise – once the guiding credo of this great institution – is now synonymous with surrender.” Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democratic moderate who lost in November, was blunt – with a touch of humor. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about this place,” she said. Every family has an embarrassing uncle, and the Senate has “too many embarrassing uncles.”

Coming off the Senate floor on Tuesday, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota met with a young constituent. The girl, dressed in holiday red, gave the senator a little book with photos that showed how she advocated for the Democrat, who lost her reelection bid in November.

As the two sat side by side in the chandeliered anteroom, Senator Heitkamp slowly turning the pages of her gift, the lawmaker began to tear up. Pressing the book to her heart, she told the girl, “This is the best present I ever got – besides my children!”

It’s an emotional time in the Senate, as those who won’t be returning say goodbye to colleagues, staff, and constituents – notably through reflective “farewell” speeches on the Senate floor, where senators sometimes have to pause to collect themselves. Whether the comments come from one-termers like Heitkamp or long-timers like Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, one theme connects their messages: Senators must work together if they are going to address America’s tough problems.

Even as the chamber seemed to move at the speed of light this week – passing a consequential farm bill, #MeToo legislation to govern sexual harassment in Congress, and a rebuke to the Saudi crown prince – outgoing senators warned of deep dysfunction and division, and some offered advice on how to fix the institution they love.

“You all might aspire to greatness individually, but that’s not where your power is. The power of the United States Senate is in the collective membership of the Senate,” Heitkamp said, summing up her message in a brief interview. Her advice is to “check your ideology at the door and think about the problem, think about the facts, think about what we need to do that’s going to change outcomes, and do it respectfully.”

But that’s hardly the general practice, as election after election, the Senate hardens into two ideological camps and the center gets smaller and smaller. In November, several moderate Democrats went down in defeat, while a couple Republican critics of the president are retiring.

“If I’m writing a headline on 2018, it’s the death of the moderates,” says Heitkamp. She crossed her party on issues such as the Keystone pipeline and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, yet could not survive in a state that President Trump won by more than 35 points.

Hard truths were uttered this week.

“The Senate as an institution is in crisis,” said Senator Hatch, who after 42 years is the longest-serving Republican senator in history. “The committee process lies in shambles, regular order is a relic of the past, and compromise – once the guiding credo of this great institution – is now synonymous with surrender.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, another moderate who lost in November, was blunt – with a touch of humor.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about this place,” she said. Every family has an embarrassing uncle, and the Senate has “too many embarrassing uncles.”

People need to “quit” calling it the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the two-term senator said, adding it won’t live up to that description until it recovers from polarization, the fear of taking tough votes, writing legislation behind closed doors, and passing giant spending bills with contents unknown to most lawmakers.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, an outspoken critic of the president, harked back three decades to make a point about the fragile nature of democracy. It can come – as it did when the Iron Curtain fell and democracies sprang up around the world – and it can go, as authoritarianism again flourishes.

“Let us recognize from this place here today that the shadow of tyranny is once again enveloping parts of the globe. And let us recognize as authoritarianism reasserts itself in country after country that we are by no means immune,” he said.

When asked for his message to newcomers about to take office, Senator Flake urged them to “Take a risk and reach across the aisle, and don’t be boxed in by partisanship.”

Several senators also tried to rouse their colleagues to embrace the “better angels” of their nature, as President Abraham Lincoln put it.

That begins with a return to comity and “genuine good feeling” among colleagues, said Hatch. A songwriter with gold and platinum albums to his name, he described comity as the “cartilage” of the Senate – “that soft connective tissue that cushions impact between opposing joints.”

Lest anyone think he’s an old man “waxing nostalgic” for some golden age that never existed, he cited his long friendship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late liberal lion from Massachusetts. “Teddy and I were a case study in contradictions,” he said, yet the ideological polar opposites came together over major legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and health care for children.

Heitkamp, too, pointed out that finding common ground has been done before and can become more common, citing several examples from her own experience, including a carbon-capture bill that became law.

“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find that sweet spot ... that one good idea that everybody can get behind.” With carbon capture, she found the place “between the [climate-change] deniers and the people who are genuinely terrified of what’s going to happen.”

To watch these senators from the press gallery is to be reminded of their genuine interest in serving their constituents – and of the challenge of politics today.

On the Senate floor, they are generally preaching to their friends, to colleagues and staff from their own party who listen from their desks or seats along the edge of the chamber, and to family seated in the balcony above. Only a handful from the opposing party usually show up: the other senator from their state or fellow committee members who give appreciative remarks.

One wonders if anyone is really listening.

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who stood to give several tributes to her departing colleagues on both sides of the aisle, says the speeches “do cause people to stop and think” about a better way and restoring the civility and compromise that used to exist. The recent memorial service for President George H.W. Bush did that, too, she says.

“The problem is that it seems to be so fleeting. Right after we buried the 41st president, we had this colossal fight at the White House” over the budget, the wall, and a partial government shutdown.

With a week to reach an agreement before hundreds of thousands of government workers could face unpaid furlough over the holidays, that fight has yet to be resolved.

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