Along with acrimonious backroom deals, late-night hours and stale take-out dinners is another tradition of the final days of Congress: the goodbyes.
This year’s farewell addresses offered an alternative view of the era of divided government — a fleeting glimpse of the odd alliances and friendships formed against the backdrop of the partisanship that usually defines Washington.
And it plays out on live television for all of the world, or at least those watching C-SPAN, to see.
“I love the Senate. I love the Senate,” gushed Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) on the Senate floor, as he bid goodbye after 30 years, also retiring a longtime family legacy in Congress. “Some days I don’t want to leave, but it is time.”
The departures this year included more than the usual number of retiring Capitol Hill lions, such as Rockefeller and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who after 60 years is the nation’s longest-serving federal lawmaker.
Also leaving were some boisterous newcomers.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), whose firebrand conservatism made her a tea party favorite and presidential contender, said her goodbye from the House floor, which she called “the freest square feet in the world.”
“I was essentially nobody from nowhere, and because people believed in me, they elected me, and they brought me here,” said the self-described homemaker from Lake Wobegon country. She gave a special shout-out to her campaign-trail “prayer warriors ... who prayed routinely for me. Those prayers, I believe, were answered.”
Some are leaving on their own terms; others were booted by voters. The Senate became one long goodbye party last week as several Democrats ousted in the midterm election said their so-longs.
Also gone with the 113th Congress are almost the last of the so-called Watergate babies: lawmakers first elected in the 1974 sweep who went on to produce some of the nation’s most significant legislation.
Among them are California Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who were architects of, among other landmark bills, President Obama’s healthcare law.
“In many ways we all live in a nation shaped, defined and strengthened by George Miller and Henry Waxman,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), describing them as “in the ranks of the greatest legislators in our history.”
The farewell address is a tradition spanning decades that has produced memorable moments. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who was elected to the Senate in 1966 and retired in 2005, noted the improvements he had seen — including the ascent of new female senators and the decline of “drunks.”
Last week, though, the speeches were mostly a testament to the bonds that form out of the glare of the partisan spotlight.
It’s not every day, after all, that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — dubbed “Dr. No.” because of his track record for opposing legislation — gets a prolonged standing ovation from both sides of the aisle, even as the conservative fiscal hawk continued blocking two popular final bills in the final days of the session.
“To those of you through the years whom I have offended, I truly apologize,” Coburn said, tearing up.
Others used their exit speeches to make a final statement on the ideals that first brought them to Washington.
“There is one sign I want to leave with you,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Watergate-era populist who was instrumental in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as he instructed those in the chamber in American Sign Language.
“Put your hands together.... You kind of close them, and it looks like an A when you do that. Now move it in a circle in front of your body,” he said, demonstrating the motion.
“This is the sign for America,” he said. “Think about it. All of us interconnected, bound together in a single circle of inclusion — no one left out. This is the ideal America toward which we must always aspire.”