Among the 13 Senators sworn in last January, Sen. Marco Rubio is the only one who has yet to speak on the floor.
The Florida Republican says he’s just waiting for the right moment for his maiden speech, which his staff suggested could be quite soon.
“It’s the issues that will ultimately draw him out to speak,” Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said. “When he says something, it will be because he has something to say. It’s not a matter of checking a box.”
As a high-profile Republican Latino, Rubio has more to lose than some of his freshman classmates. He came to the Senate with high expectations from the 2010 campaign, when he was staunchly supported by conservative kingpin Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), and he has been recently mentioned in the mix of 2012 vice presidential picks.
Many of Rubio’s colleagues gave their maiden speeches fairly quickly. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spoke in early February, less than a month after they were sworn in. Seven other freshman Senators spoke in March, and three in April. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who was sworn in earlier this week, has not yet spoken.
When Rubio does make his debut on the Senate floor, Burgos said the Senator’s maiden speech will likely pertain to the debt ceiling. So far, much of the Senate debate has centered on government spending in the next six months and not the debt crisis over the next six years.
“Now as we reach a stage in this Senate term where the focus increasingly turns to the debt ceiling debate, that is a conversation that Sen. Rubio definitely wants to be a part of,” Burgos said.
Political observers say the wait is in keeping with Rubio’s overall political strategy of keeping his head down.
“The maiden speech is the speech that commands the most attention,” GOP strategist Doug Heye said. “My sense is that he wants to make sure when he does so, it’s on these important issues, so when he does weigh in, it carries more weight.”
In a way, Rubio’s five-month wait is a throwback to earlier times in the Senate.
A century ago, freshman lawmakers were expected to open their mouths only to vote or take a drink for their first three years in office, according to Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
Ritchie said freshman Members believed that by showing humility and remaining silent until they had learned the ropes of the chamber, they would earn the respect of senior Senators.
“It is not to address the nation or constituents but to address colleagues,” Ritchie said. “It’s to establish who they are, what they’re interested in and how seriously they should be taken.”
Senators use their maiden speech as an opportunity to set the tone for their term in office. Speeches are typically noncontroversial, and they address the issues Senators believe to be most important and pay homage to the lawmaker’s predecessor and state.
But the decision of when to deliver a maiden speech was never governed by concrete rules, only by custom.
“It used to be a couple years, then a couple months, then a couple weeks, and now it seems like it’s a couple days,” Ritchie said.
In recent years, the practice of waiting to deliver a maiden speech has slowly withered away.
Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) gave her maiden speech on the topic of health care on Feb. 13, 2001, a little more than a month after she was sworn in. Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) gave a more impromptu speech on counting Ohio’s electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2005, just two days after he was sworn in.
Heye said there’s no reason for Rubio to give a speech until he’s ready.
“He’s not rushed,” Heye said. “He’s really learning how the Senate operates before doing so.”
The delay has certainly heightened expectations for the speech.
“Of course, everybody’s always interested in the first time that a new Member sits up to speak and what they’re going to speak about,” Ritchie said. “Not everybody is successful in their maiden speech, but it helps to take your measure and to see what issues are particularly important to you.”
Freshmen Use Rite of Passage to Speak Their Minds
The maiden speech is a rite of passage in the halls of the Senate: It’s the first time a freshman Member speaks on the Senate floor.
Although the tradition has changed, the Senate still takes it very seriously. In the past, Members have discussed domestic and foreign policy, retold family stories and given stemwinders on pet issues.
Below are excerpts of maiden speeches from 12 freshman Senators sworn in earlier this year. (Florida Republican Marco Rubio and Nevada Republican Dean Heller have not yet given maiden speeches.)
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
Feb. 1: Health care
“Americans deserve a country where the people are bigger than the government, and this health care bill opens the door to a future where the government is bigger than the people.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
Feb. 2: Government spending
“Henry Clay’s great compromise was over slavery. One could argue that he rose above sectional strife to carve out compromise after compromise trying to ward off civil war. Or one could argue that his compromises were morally wrong and may have encouraged war, that his compromises meant the acceptance during his 50 years of public life of not only slavery, but the slave trade itself. ... Today we have no issues that approach moral equivalency with the issue of slavery. Yet we do face a fiscal nightmare and potentially a debt crisis. Is the answer to compromise?”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.)
March 1: Job creation and fiscal discipline
“We are now rapidly closing in on the statutory limit to the amount of money that the federal government is permitted to borrow under law. ... This brings to mind the case of a family that is routinely living beyond their means. When this family reaches the limit on all of the credit cards they’ve got, who really thinks it’s a good idea to give them another credit card?”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)
March 1: Balanced budget amendment
“Benjamin Franklin used to say, ‘He’ll cheat without scruple, who can without fear.’ I think the Congressional corollary to that might be that Congress, which can continue to engage in perpetual deficit spending, will continue to do so unless or until the people require that Congress put itself in a straitjacket.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)
March 10: Fiscal discipline
“I am part of the first generation in our family to attend and graduate from college. Nothing in my background would suggest I would have the opportunity to serve as a Member of the Senate. That says something about our country and the opportunity we as Americans have to dream big and to pursue those dreams.”
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)
March 15: The debt ceiling
“Returning to the Senate is, in many ways, like having a chance to re-live a part of your life, yet doing so with the benefit of experience. While I can discuss with colleagues many things that are familiar and remain the same the second time around, there is also much that has changed in our country that requires change within this institution. And it is what has changed that has brought me back to the Senate.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
March 16: Economic growth and job creation
“The people of Connecticut sent me here to fight for them — to fight for jobs and justice, to fight against a Capitol that caters to powerful special interests. The best moments of my career have been when we fought and won battles for ordinary people.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
March 16: Economic growth and fiscal discipline
“I believe the twin challenges of our time are to revive the American economic miracle and to stop the reckless overspending by government that threatens to extinguish the American dream.”
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.)
March 28: Job creation and fiscal discipline
“When I was first elected to Congress as a Member of the House in 2001, former Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, who represented the third district of Arkansas for 26 years, gave me some excellent advice. He said, ‘John, always remember, now that the election is over, there are no more Republicans, no more Democrats, only the people of Arkansas and you need to take good care of them.’”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.)
April 6: Balanced budget amendment
“When I think of what it will take to address the challenges before us, I am reminded of my 95-year-old grandfather, John Sullivan, who is a World War II veteran and what his generation went through and what he did.”
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.)
April 7: Job creation
“Today, while much of the nation is greatly challenged by recession and joblessness, North Dakota is strong, arguably the strongest we’ve been in our history. The reason is jobs. Last week we learned that North Dakota, at 3.7 percent, once again has the lowest unemployment rate in America,- a distinction we have held since June of 2008.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)
April 12: Government spending
“In 1902, the federal government spent 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. ... This body played a key role in limiting federal government expansion. ... All that changed in the 20th century’s second decade. The Senate adopted the cloture vote, and America adopted the 16th Amendment. The federal government now had the power to tax income, and the Senate had made it easier for government to grow. And guess what, government grew.”