Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ted Stevens and the Senate Bid Goodbye to Each Other

Portland, Oregon--

This morning saw sad and moving tributes to Ted Stevens as he spoke on the Senate floor for the last time.

It was a difficult end to a 40-year Senate career coming the day after Stevens conceded defeat in his bid for re-election.

Stevens Reviews His Contributions to Alaska and the Nation

Stevens laid out what he had done for Alaska in helping to take it from basically “an impoverished territory” to a “great state.” Stevens said “Where there was nothing but tundra and forest, today there are now airports, roads, ports, water, and sewer systems, hospitals, clinics, communications networks, research labs, and much, much more.”

Along with these contributions made primarily through federal appropriations obtained by Stevens, the longest-serving Republican Senator ever highlighted his role in important Alaska-focused legislation such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, the 1973 law allowing the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976.

“To hell with politics. Just do what’s right for Alaska,” was the motto Stevens said that he tried to follow throughout the four decades in the Senate.

Stevens also said that he was proud of his work on military spending, particularly in his role in sharing leadership of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee with his “brother” Sen. Daniel Inouye, D.-Hawaii.

At the end of his prepared speech of close to 1,500 words, the Senator made only oblique reference to his conviction the week before the election of seven felony counts for violation of financial disclosure requirements.

Stevens said that “I look forward with a glad heart and with confidence in [God’s] justice and mercy….I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me.”

Other Senators Take Turns Praising Stevens’ Career

Following a lengthy standing ovation from every Senator on the floor, more than a dozen
Senators spoke about Stevens’ contributions. The comments ranged from fellow Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski’s straightforward cataloguing of specific ways the man called “Uncle Ted” had improved Alaskans’ lives (such as bringing a washeteria to Golovin and eliminating honey buckets from a number of Alaska villages) to jokey anecdotes like those of Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, who noted that at least one of Stevens’ staff members called him “the Mad Penguin” behind his back.

The most poignant comments came from the long-time colleagues who seemed to be cheering up the man as well as celebrating him. Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye said “Stand tall, Ted,” and told him that someday Alaska Natives would be singing songs of praise for him.

“We all make mistakes,” said West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd. “I have made more of them than I have hair follicles.” On his 91st birthday, Byrd was one of several Senators crying on the floor during the hour or more that the tributes consumed.

Politics Can Bring a Lot of Strangeness

The scene was odd as well as sad. The first two speakers coming after Stevens were the two party’s leaders in the Senate, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Reid spoke movingly of Stevens’ fine personal qualities, and McConnell said that no Senator in history had ever done more for his state than Stevens had done for Alaska.

Reid had announced before the election that Stevens’ felony convictions meant that he would be forced to leave the Senate if he were to be re-elected, however, and McConnell had called for Stevens to resign. Only two days before the hour of tributes on the Senate floor, there were reportedly enough votes among Senate Republicans to kick Stevens out of that body’s GOP caucus. If he had been re-elected, all of his colleagues would have had to make a difficult vote on expelling Stevens from the Senate if he had been re-elected. This morning’s proceedings had the feel of a funeral: As much as they were sorry for Ted Stevens personally and genuinely impressed by his work, a number of Senators in both parties clearly seemed to be glad that they could honor him after Alaska voters had spared them the tough decision on whether to keep him politically alive.

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