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John Kerry defends Senate, bidding farewell to a ‘great’ institution

In an unusually emotional speech, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) bid farewell to his colleagues Wednesday by rejecting criticisms of a “broken Senate,” forcefully defending the chamber and all its unique rules as an institution that is meant to forge great compromise among competing personalities.

The next secretary of state — once considered aloof and always searching for a promotion out of the Senate — tearfully sketched out a 50-minute rebuttal to the growing cacophony that deems the Senate’s customs and procedures outdated in today’s political environment. He declared the current version of the chamber “a lasting memorial to the miracle of the American experiment.”

He specifically rejected the calls for reforming the Senate rules to lessen, or even eliminate, filibusters, warning junior Democrats who have pushed for such changes that they would regret doing so. “It’s not the rules that confound us, per se,” Kerry said. “It’s the choices people make about those rules.”

The speech began with Kerry greeting a fellow Vietnam War hero, former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), in an embrace as he entered the chamber to deliver the speech, and ended with a bipartisan standing ovation amid hugs and handshakes from about 20 colleagues on hand. While few Republicans attended, those on hand included a pair of freshmen who are generationally and ideologically a world apart from Kerry, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), anti-spending conservatives who sat through the entire speech listening intently. Cruz was one of just three Republicans who opposed Kerry’s confirmation in Tuesday’s 94 to 3 vote.

Without singling out Republicans for derision, Kerry chastised the GOP for its inflexibility and abuse of the chamber’s rules, leading to the gridlock that helps eat away at the public support for Congress. “The problems that we live through today come from individual choices of senators themselves, not the rules,” he said. “When an individual senator or a colluding caucus determine that the comity essential to an institution like the Senate is a barrier to individual ambition or party ambition, the country loses.”

On official business: a look at Secretary of State travel

Kerry acknowledged how his own ambition and his failures helped shape him into a much better senator. His party’s 2004 presidential nominee — as well as a runner-up to be the vice-presidential nominee in 2000 and secretary of state in 2009 — Kerry became the sort of senator who won acclaim from both sides of the aisle only after he gave up on loftier goals. He dug into the chamber and fashioned a résuméof bipartisan work that included passage of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia and close work with another Vietnam War hero, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), on “Arab Spring” issues.

“Eight years ago, I admit that I had a very different plan [to leave the Senate], but 61 million Americans voted that they wanted me to stay here with you,” Kerry joked about his close loss to George W. Bush in 2004. “And so staying here, I learned about humility and I learned that sometimes the greatest lesson in life comes not from victory but from dusting yourself off after a defeat and starting over when you get knocked down.”

Turning the farewell into a professorial lecture, he reminded senators that “relationships matter” and recounted how he and McCain, who became senators within two years of each other, came from vastly different backgrounds: Kerry won election after his post-Vietnam service was dedicated to ending the war; McCain’s life was dedicated to the military even after 51 / 2 years imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton.” They never spoke about Vietnam until a 1991 trip to Kuwait, a sleepless night in which they finally broke their silence about the war and forged a long, complicated relationship that rose and fell depending on their own presidential ambitions.

Considered stoic and out of touch during his presidential bid, Kerry wept as he tapped his desk, a historic oak fixture whose previous occupants included then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and his brother, the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who served as Kerry’s mentor.

“From every member of the Senate, there are characteristics, passions, quirks and beliefs that bring this place alive and unite it, to make it the most extraordinary legislative body on earth,” he said, having rattled off personal traits of eight current and former colleagues without naming them. “That’s what I love about the Senate.”

The final ironic twist to his Senate career came after the November elections, as some inside President Obama’s camp pushed for Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to take over the State Department. Led by McCain, Republicans protested over her role in defending the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attack on a Libyan consulate. Publicly, Republicans voiced support for Kerry instead, and privately, Democrats told the White House they preferred Kerry as well.

Some questioned whether Republicans just wanted a chance at winning Kerry’s seat in a special election, but most senators admitted that Kerry — after finally settling into his role as a defender of the Senate, an elder statesman chairing the Foreign Relations Committee — deserved a promotion out of the chamber.

Forty-two years after he appeared before that same committee as a veteran opposed to the war, he won approval from that panel Tuesday and confirmation from the full Senate a few hours later. Kerry, the son of a Foreign Service officer, will be sworn in as secretary of state on Friday.

“It completed a circle which I never could have imagined drawing, but one our Founders surely did,” he said.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.

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