WASHINGTON – New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker used his maiden speech on the Senate floor to amplify Democrats' call for an extension of benefits for the longtime unemployed. And it took well more than 140 characters to do it.
Senate tradition dictates that new members wait their turn before delivering an extended floor speech. And that was true even of Booker, the crusading and frequently tweeting former mayor of Newark, whose national stature arguably already exceeded that of some of his senior colleagues when he entered the Senate 95 days ago.
But when his time finally came Monday night, Booker put it to use on behalf of legislation his party has made a priority early this election year – renewing unemployment insurance for more than a million Americans whose benefits expired beginning Dec. 28.
Booker began by noting he came to Washington at a time when the public view of Congress was at an all-time low, and said the lawmakers' failure to act on behalf of struggling Americans was a major reason why.
He said that after meeting with many of his new colleagues he was "inspired" by various bills they believed were crucial for strengthening the economy. But those "worthy efforts" are of little comfort to those struggling day to day, he said.
"They do not relieve us from the urgency to, right now, do more to help those families caught amidst these treacherous economic trends," he said. "President after president, Congress after Congress responded. But not now. When times were better, we responded. But not now."
In a speech that clocked in at just under 40 minutes, Booker quoted a "great New Jersey poet" – without naming Bruce Springsteen – in saying that when times are tough, "we take care of our own." And he shared the stories of constituents who have spent months trying to find new jobs, to little avail.
As President Obama did in a speech last month, Booker said he bristled at the notion that renewing benefits for the long-term unemployed was simply rewarding "lazy" individuals who would rather collect a government check than look for work.
"This to me is intellectually dishonest, and according to most studies, not true," Booker said. "This is one of those corrosive political strains that burns the collective gut of our national truth, pitting American against American."
Though senators often speak to a near-empty chamber on a given day, Booker's initial speech drew an audience of about two dozen of his colleagues – almost all of whom were fellow Democrats. The lone Republican who sat for the entirety of Booker's speech was another first-term lawmaker, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
An initial attempt by the Senate to pass a three-month extension of jobless benefits last month overcame an initial procedural hurdle, but quickly fell apart over Republican complaints that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was not allowing them to offer amendments. One sticking point is Republicans' insistence that any extension of unemployment benefits be paid for with cuts to other programs.
But bipartisan talks have continued, and key lawmakers have expressed optimism that a deal could be reached to bring the issue back to the Senate floor soon.