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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 didnt 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 So as freshman Senators got more involved in issues, the idea of waiting for a long stretch of time seemed out of date.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 Alaskas 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.