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Freshmen Seek Splash in Debuts

When Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) rose to give his first speech on the Senate floor in 1964, a year and a half after being elected, he acknowledged that most senior Members probably had no interest in what he had to say.

“A freshman Senator should be seen, not heard; should learn, and not teach,— he told the body before launching into a speech about civil rights.

New Senators are no longer shy about speaking their mind early. Newly appointed Florida Sen. George LeMieux (R) delivered his first speech on the floor Wednesday just one month after arriving in the Senate. The second-most-junior Member of the body decried the growing budget deficit and insisted that health care legislation be fiscally responsible. “The point of no return is on us,— LeMieux said of deficits.

So much for being seen and not heard. Though the historical norm for maiden floor speeches is well over a year, Senators in recent decades have spoken up much earlier.

“The tradition went on through the 1960s of Senators waiting a long period of time — sometimes a year or two — before they gave their first speech,— Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “Senior Senators told them to listen and wait, and they gave them the nod when they thought it was appropriate to speak.—

Today, Members often give their first speeches on the day they are sworn in or shortly after. For instance, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) waited all of two days. “I thought it was important to go to the floor,— she said.

Few follow the tradition of waiting for the go-ahead from more senior legislators. This change in practice is thanks to former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas).

“The practice began to decline steadily. A part of it was that freshman Senators used to be put on [lower-level] committees and they didn’t get involved in big issues,— Ritchie said. “Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson began putting all freshmen on premier committees. So as freshman Senators got more involved in issues, the idea of waiting for a long stretch of time seemed out of date.—

While most freshmen are eager to take to the floor, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) honored tradition by waiting eight months before he delivered his first speech.

“I wanted the timing and the issue to be just right so I could properly represent Alaska,— Begich said. “As you can imagine, I had a variety of opinions from my staff on the right issue, whether I was waiting too long and more.—

The Senator, whose speech coincided with the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood, spoke on the effects of climate change on Alaska. Begich also used the opportunity to introduce seven bills on the Arctic.

“That day I was a little nervous, but once I got under way I was more struck by the notion that I was joining a tradition with enormous history and meaning in our country,— he said.

In some cases, a good first floor speech, regardless of when it is delivered, can help put a new Member on the radar of senior legislators. For example, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) gave his maiden speech on Aug. 6, a month after he was sworn in, and used it to endorse Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

“The timing of when you do a first floor speech is pretty important,— Franken said. “And this one was necessary because I’m a member of the Judiciary Committee and a Supreme Court nomination is a huge deal.—

Franken prepared for the speech by rehearsing alone and in front of his staff. When the big day arrived, his family came to watch.

“Franni and my daughter were in the gallery to watch. Franni brought me a fresh shirt so I would look good for my speech, which was really sweet of her,— he said.

Franken’s maiden speech struck a particular chord with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), according to Ritchie. “Sen. Reid thought it was a first-rate speech and suggested everybody read it,— he said. “The senior Senators pay attention when freshman Senators speak.—

Of course, that attention can work the other way. A bad maiden speech can cause legislators to look down their noses at new Members. Former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) delivered a speech shortly after arriving in Congress in 1958 that attacked Johnson and his leadership style. The Senate did not appreciate the very junior Senator criticizing such a senior Member, Ritchie said, and Proxmire became something of a joke.

Proxmire delivered the speech on George Washington’s birthday, an occasion that is celebrated by a reading of the first president’s farewell address. “The joke in the Senate was that there were two farewell addresses given today,— Ritchie said. “If you cross LBJ, forget it.—

Proxmire survived the maiden speech and served in the Senate until 1989. In fact, some later interpreted the speech as a success because it proved Proxmire was an independent thinker who didn’t plan to blindly follow Senate leadership.

No matter how soon it happens or how the first speech is received, a freshman’s maiden speech is a milestone.

“These are important things in establishing their credentials in the collegial body as serious participants,— Ritchie said. “I’m sure every Senator has a story on his first speech.—

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