Madam President, I rise today with an infinite appreciation for the institution of the U.S. Senate as well as a profound sense of gratitude as I prepare to conclude my 18 years in the Senate and my nearly 40 years in elective office on behalf of the people of Maine.
It has been difficult to envision this day when I would be saying farewell to the Senate, just as it was impossible to imagine I would one day become a U.S. Senator as I was growing up in Maine. But such is the miracle of America, that a young girl of a Greek immigrant and first-generation American, who was orphaned at the age of 9, could in time be elected to serve in the greatest deliberative body the world has ever known and become the third longest serving woman in the history of the U.S. Congress.
So in contemplating how to begin my remarks today, I was reminded of the words of the renowned American poet and son of New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said:
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.
That perfectly encapsulates how I am feeling on this day--thankful and blessed. In that light, I first and foremost want to thank the people of Maine for allowing me to be their voice, their vote, and their champion for 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and for three terms in the U.S. Senate. One of the definitions of the word "trust" is a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence. And to have had the trust of Maine people, who have placed their faith and confidence in me, is an honor of indescribable magnitude. Indeed, serving my magnificent State over the past 34 years in the Halls of Congress has been the greatest privilege of my life.
I also want to thank my amazing husband, Jock McKernan, who is with us today and who, as you know, was a former Congressman and former Governor of Maine. In fact, when Jock was Governor while I was serving in the House of Representatives, we used to joke that our idea of quality time together was listening to each other's speeches. But truly, we have shared a passion for public service and quite a unique journey together, with 56 years between us in elective office, and we have never regretted a single moment.
I am also pleased to say he is joined today by our very wonderful, longtime friends, Dan and Sharon Miller from Maine.
On this occasion, I also think of my family, without whom none of this would have been possible. I have often joked that the secret to my electoral success is coming from such a large extended family--some of whom we started on campaigns at birth, I might add. But they have been a source of boundless love and support over the years, through the struggles as well as the celebrations, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
It is also impossible to serve for this long and at this level without dedicated and exceptional staff, and during my tenure in the House and Senate, I have had nearly 400 people on my staff who have helped to make all the difference for me, for Maine, and for Washington. Here we have had tremendous support with the invaluable guidance and efforts on the part of my staff through the extraordinary events of more than three decades, and they have represented the very best and brightest the Nation has to offer. They are here today in the back of the Chamber and up in the gallery, and I applaud them time and time again. In fact, we had a wonderful reunion of all of my staff, and I realize it just simply would not have been possible to have been on this legislative journey without them.
The same is true of my staff in Maine, who have not only been my eyes and ears but also my stalwart surrogates in assisting Mainers with their problems and in navigating the Federal bureaucracies. Like me, they have never been inclined to take no for an answer, and in so doing they have touched literally thousands of lives, helping to soften the hardest days and brighten the darkest.
I thank and commend the stellar staff of the Senate, from all of those ensuring the operation of the Senate here on the floor, to the cloakroom staff, the legislative counsel, to all of our pages who are here from all across America, to all those who actually keep the facilities running, and certainly to the officers who are on the front lines of Capitol security, protecting our visitors and all of us. You have my deepest admiration for your immeasurable contributions to the Senate and to our country.
I want to express my gratitude to the minority leader for his gracious remarks about my service. Senator McConnell has worked tirelessly in leading us through extremely challenging moments for the Senate and for the country. His longevity of legislative experience has made him a true asset to this body, for our Republican caucus, and I have the most heartfelt respect and appreciation for his contributions to his home State of Kentucky and to this country.
To my friend and colleague Susan Collins, I want to thank her for her very kind and extremely generous words on the floor last week. Public service was imbued in Senator Collins from her earliest days in Caribou, ME, where, incredibly, both her parents, Don and Pat, were former mayors of the city. I happened to have served with her father Don when he was also in the State legislature. For the past 16 years, Senator Collins has provided exemplary representation not only for Maine but for America with her voice of reason, pragmatism, and thoughtfulness, and Maine will truly be in outstanding hands with Susan Collins as our senior Senator.
I am also indebted to my great friend Senator Mikulski, the dean of the women in the Senate and for all women, for the warm and wonderful comments she made yesterday on the floor. I have known Barbara for more than 30 years, beginning with our mutual service in the House of Representatives. She is truly a dynamo who has always brought to bear an unyielding tenacity that has consistently been reflected in her vigorous advocacy for those she represents.
As I said, in 2011 she became the longest serving woman in the Senate, and there is no one I would rather have surpassing the length of service of Maine's legendary Senator, Margaret Chase Smith, than Senator Barbara Mikulski. What a reflection on her legislative stature that she has now assumed the mantle of longest serving woman in the history of the U.S. Congress.
To our Presiding Officer, I would say that I have enjoyed serving with her as well in this august Chamber and getting to know her. I know she will do well into the future, and I have enjoyed working with her over the years.
I see two of my colleagues here: Senator Isakson, who is my neighbor in the Russell Office Building--a gentleman in every way. He has been magnificent to work with. And, of course, my colleague Senator Murkowski from Alaska, who has made some great contributions to the Senate with her consensus-building, her dedication, and her exceptional abilities. I want to thank them because I have certainly enjoyed working with them and getting to know them.
To all of my Senate colleagues, past and present, this Chamber would simply be another room with fancy walls without the lifeblood of passionate service and dedication you bring to this institution and our Nation.
We all have our stories about where we came from, about what shaped our values and aspirations and why we care so much about public service as a vehicle for securing for others the American dream, for all who seek to embrace it. In my instance, my own legislative journey commenced when I was elected to fill my late husband's seat in the Maine House of Representatives. I felt then, as I have throughout my career, that our role as public servants, above all else, is to solve problems. I have often reflected on my 6 years in the State house and the State senate in Augusta, ME, because that is where I found politics and public life to be positive and constructive endeavors. Once the elections were over, my colleagues and I would put the campaigns and the party labels behind us to enact laws that genuinely improved the lives of Mainers.
I also inherited a legacy of bipartisanship and independence from Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who is best remembered for her remarks made during only her second year of her first term in the U.S. Senate when, with truly uncommon courage and principled independence, she telegraphed the truth about McCarthyism during the Red Scare of the 1950s with her renowned "Declaration of Conscience" speech on the Senate floor. In 15 minutes she had done what 94 of her colleagues--male colleagues, I might add--had not dared to do, and in so doing slayed a giant of demagoguery.
So when people ask me why I may be challenging a particular party position or why I don't simply go with the flow, I tell them: Please don't take it personally. I can't help it, I am from Maine. That is what Maine people truly expect from their elected officials--they expect you to do what you believe is right for the right reasons and in the right way. We have seen that reflected time and again, not only with Margaret Chase Smith but in the distinguished service of great Senators who have preceded me from Maine, from Ed Muskie to Bill Cohen and the former majority leader of the Senate, George Mitchell.
Throughout my tenure, I have borne witness to government's incredible potential as an instrument for that common good. I have also experienced its capacity for serial dysfunction. Indeed, as I stated in announcing I would not seek a fourth term in the Senate, it is regrettable that excessive political polarization in Washington today is preventing us from tackling our problems in this period of monumental consequences for our Nation.
But as I prepare to conclude my service in elective office, let me be abundantly clear: I am not leaving the Senate because I have ceased believing in its potential or I no longer love the institution, but precisely because I do. I am simply taking my commitment to the Senate in a different direction.
I intend to work from the outside, to help build support for those in this institution who will be working to reestablish the Senate's roots as a place of refuge from the passions of politics, as a forum where the political fires are tempered, not stoked--as our Founding Fathers intended. Because the Senate in particular is our essential legislative mechanism for distilling the vast diversity of ideologies and opinions in America, so that we might arrive at solutions to the challenges we face.
The fact is, we are a can-do country, infused with an irrepressible can-do spirit. It is in our blood, and in the very fiber of who we are. It is in our hardworking families, and in the limitless entrepreneurship and innovation of our people. And it is profoundly reflected in our heroic men and women in uniform--whose unflagging bravery and professionalism I have been privileged to witness firsthand throughout my tenure in Congress as they answer the call in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, with many having made the ultimate sacrifice so that we may live and that freedom may always ring.
Here in this chamber, I have spoken with many of you who came here to get things done, to solve problems and achieve great things for our Nation. I have heard you lament the inability to accomplish more in today's polarized atmosphere. And as I have traveled throughout Maine and America--even overseas, people ask me, has it always been this way?
I tell them, I am so passionate about changing the tenor in Congress because I have seen that it can be different. It has not always been this way. And it absolutely does not have to be this way.
I have been in the Congress long enough to have experienced firsthand what can be accomplished when individuals from various political backgrounds are determined to solve a problem. For instance, when I first came to the House of Representative in 1979, I joined the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, which I ultimately co-chaired for 10 years with Democratic Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. We certainly did not agree on everything, but with only 17 women in the House and Senate, we simply could not afford to draw political lines in the sand when it came to matters of importance to women.
So when we spoke on these issues, we spoke as women, not as Republicans or Democrats. That is what drove our agendas at the caucus--and, together, we started to make a real difference for women. That was a time in America when child support enforcement was viewed as strictly a woman's problem, a time when pensions were cancelled without a spouse's approval, a time when family and medical leave wasn't the law of the land, and a time when, incredibly, women were systematically excluded from clinical medical trials at the National Institutes of Health--trials that made the difference between life and death.
As Senator Mikulski eloquently described yesterday in this chamber, she was waging a battle for equity in women's health research in the Senate while Pat Schroeder, Connie Morella and I were fighting in the House. At a pivotal juncture, Senator Mikulski launched a key panel to explore this shocking discriminatory treatment which further galvanized national attention. And in the end, together, we produced watershed policy changes that, to this day, are resulting in life-saving medical discoveries for America's women.
In the House, we often worked across party lines to craft our Federal budgets, in sharp contrast to today's broken process where we cannot pass a budget in 3 years, even with unprecedented deficits and debt. When President Reagan was elected in 1980, he knew he had to build coalitions to pass budgets that would address the tumultuous economy. And the result was that the moderate northeast Republican group called the Gypsy Moths and the conservative-to-moderate Democratic group called the Boll Weevils negotiated budgets together, to help reconcile our political and regional differences and in a model for bipartisanship, all of us spent days and weeks fashioning budgets, literally going through function by function.
Arriving at compromise was not easy by any means. It never is. But the point is, we can undertake the difficult work, if we choose to do so.
I was able to make a difference even as a member of the minority throughout my entire tenure in the House, by reaching across the political aisle. And in 1995, when the voters of Maine entrusted me to be their voice and their vote in the U.S. Senate and I was finally serving in the majority, I believed this kind of cooperative disposition would remain an indispensable commodity in meeting the challenges of the times.
That is why I joined the Senate Centrist Coalition shortly after arriving in the Senate, which had been formed by Senators John Chafee and John Breaux during the 1994 health reform debate to bridge the political divide. After Senator Chafee passed away in 1999, Senator Breaux and I thought it was an imperative that we revive the Coalition to help foster bipartisanship following the divisiveness of the Senate impeachment trial. And following the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore that adjudicated the presidential election, and an evenly split Senate with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, Senate leaders Lott and Daschle joined with nearly one-third of the Senate at a meeting of the coalition to explore how to move forward in a bipartisan fashion.
And it is precisely this kind of approach that is crucial, because it is only when we minimize the political barriers that we can maximize the Senate, allowing it to become an unparalleled incubator for results that truly matter to the American people.
It was a cross-aisle alliance that produced the so-called E-Rate program in 1996. This was a landmark law ensuring every library and classroom in America would be wired to the revolutionary resources of the Internet, which one publication has ranked as fourth in a list of innovations and initiatives that have helped shape education technology over the past generation.
My good friend and colleague Senator Rockefeller, with whom I have been privileged to work on so many issues, was doggedly determined to enact this benchmark initiative. In typical fashion, Jay was not going to take no for an answer--which made us perfect partners and co-authors, as I was equally determined. And by working with Members of both parties who were willing to hear the facts and judge on the merits, we overcame the hurdles and the E-Rate program was born.
During the 2001 tax debates, Senator Blanche Lincoln and I as members of the Finance Committee joined together to increase the amount of the child tax credit and make it refundable, so that low income families who didn't earn enough to pay Federal taxes could still benefit from the credit. Ultimately, our measure was enacted, becoming only the second refundable tax credit ever, and ensuring the child tax credit would assist an additional 13 million more children and lift 500,000 of those children out of poverty.
I also think of how my friend, Senator Landrieu who is sitting here in the chamber as well, and I formed the Senate Common Ground Coalition in 2006, to rekindle cross-party relations. And not only have Mary and I made history as the first women to serve simultaneously as chair and ranking on a standing committee, but we have worked together on numerous measures that are assisting America's greatest jobs generators, our small businesses.
In a shining example of what is possible with civility and bipartisan teamwork, Senator Ted Kennedy and I coauthored the landmark Genetic Nondiscrimination Act--to stop insurance companies and employers from denying or dropping coverage based on genetic tests, so individuals would not forgo those potentially life-saving tests. At that juncture, Democrats were in the majority--and traditionally, the chair of a committee takes the lead name on legislation. But Ted approached me and said essentially that, because my work on GINA had made it possible, it should be Snowe-Kennedy, not Kennedy-Snowe—a magnanimous legislative gesture from the legislative lion of the U.S. Senate. And I am proud to say GINA passed in 2008 and has been referred to as the first major civil rights act of the 21st century.
So there are templates for working together effectively in the U.S. Senate on behalf of the American people. But on occasion, it is the very institution of the Senate itself that is preserved when we stake out common ground.
Even in the highly charged atmosphere of the presidential impeachment trial, we made the process work. During a gathering of the Republican Caucus, I advocated that we hold a bipartisan meeting in the Old Senate Chamber, to generate agreement between the parties on the conduct of the trial. The Senate had been about to decide the guidelines of the trial on a purely partisan basis, but by convening both parties, we were able to chart a logical, reasonable and judicious course.
In 2005, I joined the so-called Gang of 14, comprised of 7 Republicans and 7 Democrats and spearheaded largely by Senators John Warner, John McCain, Robert Byrd, and Ben Nelson. The group was formed to avert an institutional crisis as a result of repeated, systematic filibuster of President Bush's judicial nominees that had been a corrosive force on the Senate. In response, the Republican majority was seeking to break the logjam by exercising the so-called nuclear option, that would have jettisoned longstanding rules requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster.
That 60 vote threshold had always been a bulwark protecting the rights of the minority, but would have become just a simple majority vote. Yet, just as we were about to cross this political Rubicon, the Gang of 14 forged a pact based on mutual trust, that we would only support a filibuster of judicial nominees under what we labeled extraordinary circumstances, and we would oppose the nuclear option, an agreement that embodied the very manifestation of the power of consensus building.
So as this body contemplates changes to its rules in the next Congress, I would urge all of my colleagues who will return next year to follow the Gang of 14 template and exercise a similar level of caution and balance. Because what makes the Senate unique, what situates this institution better than any other to secure the continued greatness of our Nation, is that balance between accommodation of the minority and primacy of the majority. And regardless of who is in the minority, any suppression of the ability to debate and shape legislation is tantamount to silencing millions of voices and ideas--which are critical to developing the best possible solutions.
I have mentioned all of these examples as illustrations of the boundless potential of the Senate--and that our problems are not insurmountable, if we refuse to be intractable. It is not about what is in the best interests of a single political party, but what is in the best interests of our country.
As far back as the fledgling days of our Nation, our Founding Fathers warned of the dangers of undue allegiance to political parties--a potential that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison specifically cited in the Federalist Papers. Now, one study by three political scientists pegs Congress at its highest level of polarization since the end of Reconstruction in 1877. It is true that, in the intervening years, we have had no duels to settle disagreements and no canings on the Senate floor as occurred in the earlier years of the Senate--although there was a physical brawl on the Senate floor in 1902. Yet, the fact we are still more polarized now than at any moment in 140 years speaks volumes.
So instead of focusing on issues as the Senate was uniquely established to do, we've become more like a parliamentary system where we simply vote in political blocks. And we have departed and diverged from the Senate's traditional rules and norms in a manner that is entirely contradictory to the historical purpose of the Senate and the role of the Founding Fathers intended for the Senate to play.
The very name of our institution, the Senate, derives from the Latin root senatus, or council of elders, where the council of elders represented the qualities of experience and wisdom and not just some experience and some wisdom in a deliberative body, but more experience and more wisdom in the highest deliberative body.
For thousands of years, and for the Greeks and our Framers alike, the Senate has stood as an assembly where the lessons of individual experiences were translated by measured wisdom into stable collective judgments. Therefore, understanding through patience, appreciation through tolerance, and consensus through moderation are all required to reach such judgments and to do the work of the people. Indeed, I would argue it is only by recognizing and striving to meet the institutional ideals of the Senate that we can aspire to fill our obligations to those we represent.
We all take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. I have always believed this oath necessarily included a duty to support and defend the Senate as an institution and the integrity of its deliberative process. That requires the ability to listen before judging, to judge before advocating, and to advocate without polarizing. It also includes a capacity to differ with one's own party, and even to reach agreement and compromise with another party when one's own party is unable to prevail. Such leadership necessarily requires all Members to recognize their individual duty to serve the people best by serving our Chamber with the highest standards of consideration, deliberation, and explanation.
Former Supreme Court Justice Souter once said, and I am paraphrasing: All of the Court's hard cases are divisive because one set of values is truly at odds with another, and the Constitution gives no simple rule of decision. For, in truth, we value liberty as well as order, we value freedom as well as security, and we value fairness as well as equality.
So in the tough cases judges have a hard job of choosing not between those things that are good and those that are evil, but between the many, and often competing, good things that the Constitution allows. Justice Souter could have been talking about the work of the Senate and the often difficult choices we too are required to make. This observation accepts the intrinsic competition that defines these difficult choices but resolves to rely on reason, meaning, and the reputational integrity of the process to make and explain the ultimate decisions.
Indeed, the Justice concluded his remarks by saying he knew of no other way to make good on the aspirations that tell us who we are--and who we mean to be--as the people of the United States.
We have witnessed the heights the Senate is capable of reaching when it adheres to its founding precepts. Just think about how we came together in the aftermath of the catastrophic events of September 11 to secure our country and to help heal our Nation. Just think about the major debates of the 20th century on such watershed issues as the establishment of Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act. None of these profound advancements would have been woven into the fabric of our society today if they had been passed simply on party-
line votes rather than the solidly bipartisan basis on which each of them was enacted.
I am not claiming there was some kind of golden age of bipartisanship where everyone all sang from the same legislative hymn book, and I am not advocating bipartisanship as some kind of an end unto itself. That is not the point. What I am saying is we have seen how cooperation in the past has resulted in great achievements, which likely never would have occurred if bipartisanship had not intervened as a means to attaining those most worthy ends.
Our grandest accomplishments in the Congress were also a reflection of the particular compromises and level of urgency required by the times in which they were forged. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks summarized this concept well when he wrote that there are policies that are not permanently right and that situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order.
As we confront the impending confluence of issues known as the fiscal cliff, we are at a moment of major significance that requires the application of the principle that Brooks describes. For the sake of the country, we must demonstrate to the American people that we are, in fact, capable of making the big decisions by putting in place an agreement and a framework to avoid the fiscal cliff before we adjourn this year.
We are surrounded by history perpetually in the Senate as well as throughout the Capitol. How could we not be inspired by it to rise to this occasion? Indeed, if you know history, you understand the very story of America's most formative days was defined by an understanding that effective governance requires the building of consensus, and such consensus is achievable even after the exercise of passionate advocacy, which, in conclusion, brings us back to the creation of a document we all cherish and revere; that is, our United States Constitution.
Madam President, 225 years ago, 55 leaders from divergent geographic and philosophical backgrounds converged on the city of Philadelphia to draft a new structure of government to strengthen our fledgling country. These were no shrinking violets. They had risked their lives and fortunes to establish a new nation under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.
They were strong-willed and unabashedly opinionated. They disagreed and argued about a great many matters, both petty and consequential. Thomas Jefferson even considered Virginia, and not the United States, as his country. Yet by September of that year, 39 of the original delegates signed the most enduring and ingenious governing document the world has ever known, the Constitution of the United States.
It didn't happen because 55 people who shared identical viewpoints gathered in a room and rubber-stamped their unanimous thinking. It happened because these visionaries determined that the gravity and the enormity of their common goal necessitated the courage to advance decision making through consensus.
I worry that we are losing the art of legislating. When the history of this chapter in the Senate is written, we don't want it to conclude it was here that it became an antiquated practice. So as I depart the Senate that I love, I urge all of my colleagues to follow the Founding Fathers' blueprint in order to return this institution to its highest calling of governing through consensus. For it is only then that the United States can ascend to fulfill the demands of our time, the promise of our Nation, and the rightful expectations of the American people.
Thank you, Madam President. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
I yield the floor.