Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell choked up on the Senate floor Wednesday as he remembered his decades long friendship with the retiring Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a rare moment of raw emotion from the usually stoic Republican leader.
McConnell’s comments came moments before Alexander delivered his own farewell address to the chamber, where he’s had outsized impact over three terms and earned a reputation as a pragmatic legislator who regularly worked across the aisle.
McConnell called his colleague, “hands down one of the most brilliant, most thoughtful and most effective legislators any of us have ever seen,” lauding his dedication to bipartisan work throughout his long career.
“I myself have leaned on Lamar’s wisdom for many years, but I think I leaned just as much on his optimism, his can-do spirit, his ability to look on the bright side and then discern how some more hard work could make it brighter still,” McConnell said, before taking a long pause to gather his emotions before telling the chambers that he would miss his regular dinners with his friend.
McConnell again got emotional at the end of his speech, saying, “I’m sorry that in a few more weeks it will just be the rest of us left, but you’re leaving this body and those of us in it and the nation it exists to serve stronger and better before you were here.”
After McConnell spoke, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also wished a fond farewell to Alexander.
“Now, Senator Alexander and I have not always agreed, but what an amazing and capable legislator and true statesman he has been,” the Democrat from New York said.
In his speech, Alexander pleaded with the senators he’s leaving behind to not abandon the filibuster, the supermajority tool designed to cool passions of the day and require bipartisan consensus to get measures approved that some Democrats want to abolish. He also pressed for more roll call votes on key issues of the day that he said are often blocked from being taken by senators reluctant to cast politically tough votes.
Alexander also spoke about what he tells the history teachers he regularly invites to the Senate floor about how there are really two Washington.
“Please suggest to your students that they look at Washington, DC, as if it were a split-screen television. On one screen are the tweets and the confirmation hearings. But on the other screen, senators are working together to strengthen national defense, national laboratories, national parks and the National Institutes of Health,” he said.
Alexander also quoted the late NAACP President Ben Hooks who described America’s journey this way: “America is a work in progress. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go.”