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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did something surprising on Wednesday. He got emotional on the Senate floor.
He wasn’t grieving the more than a quarter million American lives lost from COVID-19, or recounting some personal tragedy. He was recognizing the retirement of a close friend and fellow senator: Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
“He is hands down one of the most brilliant, most thoughtful and most effective legislators any of us have ever seen,” McConnell said of Alexander, choking up at times, before the former Tennessee governor and former U.S. secretary of education gave his farewell Senate speech.
Alexander’s speech was powerful, and it was unusual. It was powerful in that it made a compelling case for legislators to put country before party, and to pursue bipartisan compromise. It was unusual in that there was actually a sizable group of people in the room listening.
While senators frequently deliver remarks to an almost empty chamber, a relatively large number of Alexander’s colleagues were in their seats to hear him speak. We hope they — especially McConnell — listened closely. They certainly applauded as if they did.
“Our country needs a United States Senate to work across party lines to force broad agreements on hard issues, creating laws that most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept,” Alexander, a conservative lawmaker who has earned widespread respect from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, said on Wednesday.
Though Alexander’s speech didn’t specifically address the unresolved issue of additional coronavirus relief, the type of bipartisan work he described is exactly what a group of Republican, Democratic and independent lawmakers have produced with a new aid proposal. The group, which includes both Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, has outlined a compromise that will make neither side totally happy. That is often a sign of a deal well struck.
McConnell has thrown cold water on this plan, despite the fact that it has brought Democrats closer to his priority of COVID-19 liability protection for businesses and other entities, and despite the fact that it price tag is lower than a $1.8 trillion proposal the White House has supported and similar to a roughly $1 trillion total Senate Republicans floated this summer. He should revisit Alexander’s remarks about finding agreement in a diverse America.
“That’s why the motto above the presiding officer’s desk is not just one word, ‘pluribus.’ It is ‘E pluribus unum, out of many, one,’” Alexander said in his speech. “More than ever, our country needs a United States Senate to turn pluribus into unum, to lead the American struggle to forge unity from diversity.”
There’s been a lot of “pluribus” bouncing around in Washington the past few months, with lawmakers and the White House unable to rise to the occasion and forge compromise on another round of much-needed coronavirus aid. The bipartisan group that unveiled its plan this week has taken significant strides toward an imperfect “unum” of Republican and Democratic priorities that might actually be able to break through the stalemate.
“In the 1930s, the country needed the Senate to create Social Security. After World War II, to create the United Nations. In the 1960s, Medicare. In 1978, to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty,” Alexander said, rattling off a list of enduring legislation that required Republicans and Democrats coming together to work out differences. “In 2013, more recently, to tie interest rates for student loans to the market rates, saving student borrowers hundreds of billions of dollars in the last several years. In 2015, to fix No Child Left Behind. That bill had 100 alligators in the swamp. When President Obama signed it, he said it was a ‘Christmas miracle’ because in the end 85 senators voted for it.”
In 2020, the country needs Congress to come together and provide additional COVID-19 relief ahead of what promises to be a very difficult winter. The bipartisan compromise unveiled Tuesday offers a solid launching off point after months of false starts.
Alexander also outlined how the Senate has recently been failing to have actual debates about important issues.
“Here’s my view: It’s hard to get here, hard to stay here and while you’re here, you ought to try to accomplish something good for the country,” he said. “But it’s hard to accomplish something if you don’t vote on amendments. Lately, the Senate has been like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.”
We won’t be asking King, Collins and the other members of their group of dealmakers to start singing any time soon. But in terms of legislating in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, they’re finally getting things in tune. It would be a huge mistake for McConnell to turn off the mic.
Alexander’s thoughtful speech immediately lent credence to the nice things Majority Leader McConnell said about him on Wednesday. The gentleman from Tennessee did not waste his farewell Senate address. The question is, was McConnell really listening?