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The Last Freshman: Sasse Evokes Senate Titans in Opening Speech

Sasse arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy lunch Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sasse arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy lunch Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Leave it to a historian with a Yale doctorate to respect a Senate tradition from a bygone era.  

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., delivered his first speech on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, waiting until a year after he won his Senate seat to speak from his chamber desk — the final member of the freshman class to do so. His remarks highlighted a trio of the chamber’s legendary figures: Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.  

In an interview with CQ Roll Call after leaving the floor, Sasse said he had pledged to Nebraskans that he would not speak from the floor until a year after his election.  

“People know that the institution doesn’t work right now, and they want it to work better,” Sasse said of his colleagues in the chamber during the speech. “Trying to figure out how you actually fix it is appealing to people, and so there was a lot of encouragement.”  

The chamber was unusually full for a floor speech, with a strong contingent from the Republican Conference, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., listening as Sasse admonished the state of the Senate.  

Sasse speaks from the Senate floor Tuesday. (CQ Floor Video)
Sasse speaks from the Senate floor Tuesday. (CQ Floor Video)

Roughly a dozen Democrats were also on hand, with one Democrat even sitting on the Republican side. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., sat directly in front of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. When Carper ducked out of the chamber as Sasse was still talking, the two nodded at each other, and Carper gave Cruz a friendly tap on the leg with his notebook.  

The average length of service before speaking on the floor for the first time in recent Congresses is 90 days, according to the Senate Historical Office. There was a time when newly minted senators would not speak for an entire year, recalled former Secretary of the Senate William F. Hildenbrand.  

“I think there’s a learning experience that goes along with that that would make you a much better senator than they have today, if you spent that first year learning instead of shooting off your mouth, because you can’t learn while you talk,” Hildenbrand said in a 1985 oral history interview  posted on the Senate website.  

This year, Sen. Bill Cassidy gave the first maiden floor speech a week after the Senate convened for the year. That was a product of the schedule, as McConnell made legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline a top priority for the new GOP majority, as it is for the Louisiana Republican.  

“It is interesting because as a child I would read about how the Senate was a great deliberative body. I would read of the debates in which issues were discussed that changed the course of our country’s history,” Cassidy said before turning to the topic of the day. “The key issue here is that it is a deliberative body.”  

Two years ago, incoming freshmen finished their maiden speeches at the beginning of July, with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., making his opening presentation.  

Sasse said he intentionally took the desk once occupied by Moynihan. With fellow Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia seated right in front of him, Sasse highlighted Byrd’s importance to the institution, saying “he forced the Senate to grapple with its history, specific duties and unique place in the architecture of Madisonian separation of powers.”  

Speaking with CQ Roll Call, Sasse, 43, said he probably began studying Byrd while in his twenties. Byrd, who became legendary as the keeper of Senate traditions, delivered his own maiden speech just 20 days after arriving in 1959.  

Sasse said he did not believe, through conversations with many of his colleagues, that there is a “magic bullet” to bring back the Senate of yore, but he issued “a call for more meaningful fighting,” in his speech, also saying that an all-too-familiar criticism of political polarization as a driving force behind the denigration of the Senate oversimplifies the problem.  

“One of our jobs is to flesh out competing views with such seriousness and respect that we should be mitigating, not exacerbating, the polarization that does exist,” Sasse said in his floor speech. “This is one of the reasons we have a representative, rather than a direct, democracy.”  

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report. Related: Maiden Speeches Finished … Almost See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call’s new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

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