Stevens vs. Muskie, ca. 1972

Posted June 15, 2005 at 6:55pm

As a young Senator and a member of the minority, I lived in Maryland with my family. We lived in the same neighborhood as Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine). It was a time when most families were one-car families, so he and I often carpooled together into the Capitol.

Once when we drove in together, Ed and I talked about the program ahead and discussed a bill he was managing on the Senate floor that day. I had an amendment for his bill. I told Ed that I would be in a committee hearing and asked him to have a staff member notify me when I could submit my amendment. I thought Ed agreed to let me know when I should offer my amendment.

It was a busy day, but suddenly I was aware that the bells, which tell us there is a vote being taken on the Senate floor, were ringing. When I got to the floor, I learned the vote was for final passage of the very bill that I had told Ed I wished to amend.

I went right to Muskie and said, “Ed, you S.O.B., I had an amendment! You knew that — I told you about it this morning!” I was a little loud, that’s for sure, because I wanted to offer my amendment but could not because the Senate was voting on final passage. The bill was the Marine Mammal Act.

The Majority Leader, Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), heard me talking to Ed. He said, “Senator, that kind of language is not allowed on the Senate floor!”

Sen. Mansfield was not the type of person to whom you spoke back, but I was pretty hot under the collar. I described the situation to him and expressed my frustration that the Senate was in the middle of a roll call vote on final passage and it was too late to offer the amendment, which was very important to me.

Mike Mansfield asked Sen. Muskie, “Is this true?” Sen. Muskie responded that it was, but he said my amendment wouldn’t have passed anyway because he would have opposed it.

Sen. Mansfield then asked, “Senator, do you have your amendment?” I said I did, and I gave it to him.

At that point, something happened which I believe had never occurred before and has not occurred since. Sen. Mansfield asked for unanimous consent to stop the roll call vote! The Senate was shocked into silence.

The leader then asked the Senate to return to second reading, which we did. Mike said, “I have an amendment to offer for myself and the Senator from Alaska.” He turned to Sen. Muskie and said, “Do you want to debate this amendment?” Sen. Muskie declined. Mike asked me if I wanted to debate the amendment. Knowing I was ahead, I said, “No.”

The amendment passed by voice vote, and Sen. Mansfield proceeded to third reading and to the final vote again.

When the vote started the leader turned to Sen. Muskie and told him, “Every Senator has the same rights on the floor, including the right to offer an amendment and the right to be heard.” Then he turned to me and added, “I don’t want to hear you speak that way here in the Senate again!”

My amendment allowed Alaska Natives to continue to harvest marine mammals as part of their subsistence rights. It was not important to people here in the Lower 48, but it was very important to the indigenous people of my home state.

The Senate has changed significantly since the days when Sen. Mansfield was the Majority Leader. In those days, the Senate was very collegial. We were friends who would debate vigorously on the floor, but generally we were respectful of one another. There were no television cameras to posture before. A Senator went to the floor to hear a debate; today, we turn on the TV and do several things at the same time. The Senate then was less about making news deadlines and more concerned with meeting the needs of our constituents.

Today, the Senate is seriously divided, which is a reflection of our nation. Issues like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, abortion and Social Security have become politicized more than ever. Debates now are so political that we seek alliances rather than striving to work through problems as a whole Senate. Lifelong friendships, such the one I share with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), are rare.

However, one thing that has not changed: Sen. Mansfield was right. All Senators have a responsibility to serve our nation, their state, and the Senate to the very best our ability. On the Senate floor, all Senators are equal, and we all must have the same rights.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was first elected in 1970. He is currently the Senate President Pro Tem.