Senate Democrats

Reid Statement Opening The 111th Congress

Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following statement today on the floor of the Senate.  Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

“On the Fourth of July of the year 1851, the legendary statesman Daniel Webster, himself a former United States Senator, laid the cornerstone for the Senate Chamber in which we now gather.  ‘Be it known,’ he said, ‘that on this day the Union of the United States of America stands firm.’

“Today marks the 150th year that this chamber has housed the United States Senate.  When Vice-President John Breckinridge gaveled the 34th Congress open in this chamber in 1859, our republic had a population one-tenth what it is today.  With just sixty-four members, each Senator enjoyed a little more legroom.  These desks – many of them original from the country’s earliest days – served as the primary working space for most members.

“The first session held here 150 years ago began just as it has today, with the Vice-President of the United States administering the Oath of Office to new members.  Today, nine Senators join what I believe is the greatest legislative body the world has ever known.  I extend my warmest welcome and congratulations to:

  • Senator Mark Udall of Colorado;
  • Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico;
  • Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska;
  • Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire;
  • Senator Mark Warner of Virginia;
  • Senator Jim Risch of Idaho;
  • Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina;
  • Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon; and
  • Senator Mark Begich of Alaska.

“To the profound challenges we face, these nine men and women bring vast judgment and experience at all levels of government and public service.  I am confident that every one of them will serve their states and our nation with distinction.

“Two years ago, this inaugural day of Congress heralded a new majority for Democrats in both the Senate and House of Representatives – but in the Senate, it was a tenuous majority.  We began with 51 Democrats.  The illness to Senator Tim Johnson and the crowded Democratic primary field left us oftentimes short of an outright majority, and far short of the 60 votes needed to prevent filibusters and move legislation forward.  While we made substantial progress in the 110th Congress, the partisanship of divided government too often ruled the day.

“What a difference an election makes.  Since 2006, Democrats have achieved a net gain of 14 Senate seats.  We return to work for the 111th Congress with a strong majority that will soon reach 59 seats.  And just two weeks from today, Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States.

“We are ready to answer the call of the American people by putting the past eight years behind us and delivering the change that our country desperately needs.  We are grateful to begin anew with a far more robust Democratic majority.

“But both parties learned an important lesson over the past two years: When we allow ourselves to retreat into the tired, well-worn trenches of partisanship; when we fail to reach for common ground; when we are unable, in the words of President-Elect Obama, to disagree without being disagreeable, we diminish our ability to accomplish real change.

“So I say to my Republican colleagues: With American troops fighting two wars overseas, we are in this together.

“With the American people suffering a staggering economic crisis here at home, we are in this together.

“With the middle class struggling to make one paycheck last until the next one comes, we are in this together.

“With health care, college tuition and retirement more expensive and harder to reach than ever, we are in this together.

“With our climate in crisis and energy prices rising and falling unpredictably, we are all in this together.

“Some may fear the depth of the challenges we face.  But I remind them that adversity is no stranger to our country.  Yet in America and in this Senate chamber, we have never failed to persevere and prosper.

“In this chamber, our union came unraveled and was mended; great wars were declared and peace was celebrated; our most fundamental freedoms were challenged, upheld and expanded.  In this chamber, we passed Roosevelt’s New Deal; Truman’s Fair Deal; Kennedy’s Great Frontier; and Johnson’s Great Society.  We outlawed child labor, brought electricity to the western frontier; ensured a college education for those who serve in uniform; and passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

“There is no question that the challenges ahead of us are staggering.  But I have never been more confident that if we renew our commitment to bipartisanship, the 111th Congress will be a tremendous success.  In the coming days, my fellow Democrats and I will introduce our legislative priorities for this new Congress.  As we continue to develop our legislative agenda, we look forward to developing a dialogue between both sides of the aisle.

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“This day marks not just the 150th year of this Senate chamber, but also the 50th year of Senator Robert Byrd’s service – and prior to that, six years in the House of Representatives.

“It is no secret that when it comes to reverence for this institution and our Constitution, Senator Byrd has no rival.  For our nine new members sworn today and for all Americans, I offer a few of Senator Byrd’s words, which he delivered to a meeting of new Senators in 1996:

‘After 200 years, [the Senate] is still the anchor of the Republic, the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation. 

‘It has weathered the storms of adversity, withstood the barbs of cynics and the attacks of critics.  It has provided stability and strength to the nation during periods of civil strife and uncertainty, panics and depressions. 

‘In war and peace, it has been the sure refuge and protector of the rights of states and of a political minority.  And, today, the Senate still stands – the great forum of constitutional American liberty.’

“Today a new chapter of history begins.  Each one of us has the honor of taking part in writing it.  As that work starts, the words of Daniel Webster return to mind: ‘be it known that on this day, the Union of the United States of America stands firm.’

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“As my colleagues are aware, two Democratic United States Senate seats – one from Illinois, the other from Minnesota – are currently vacant.  I will briefly address those two unusual circumstances.

“First, the Illinois seat left vacant by President-Elect Barack Obama.  Although I do not know Mr. Burris personally, he has served the State of Illinois in elective office for many years.  Mr. Burris and his advisors were welcomed at the Capitol this morning by Sergeant At Arms Terry Gainer, a long-time friend of his from Chicago.  They then had a gracious meeting with the Secretary of the Senate, Nancy Erickson, and Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin, who informed them that Mr. Burris is not in possession of the necessary credentials from the State of Illinois.

“A court case in Illinois is pending to determine whether the Secretary of State, Jesse White, is obligated to sign the certification.  We are awaiting that court decision.  If Mr. Burris takes possession of valid credentials, the United States Senate will proceed in a manner that is respectful to Mr. Burris while ensuring that there is no cloud of doubt over the appointment to fill this seat.  I also understand that Mr. Burris may give testimony to Illinois State Assembly impeachment proceedings against Governor Blagojevich, and we await that proceeding as well.

Turning to the State of Minnesota: I know a little bit about close elections.  I have been through two – lost the first by 524 votes, and won the second by 428 votes. 

“The Senate race in Minnesota was exceptionally close – one of the closest in history.  The bipartisan state canvassing board and Minnesota’s elections officials have done an exemplary job handling the recount.  There have been no allegations of partisanship or unfairness from either side.

“Even close elections have winners.  After all votes have been fairly counted, Al Franken is the certified winner by the State Canvassing Board and he is the Senator-elect from Minnesota.

“Democrats will not seek to seat Senator-elect Franken today.  We understand the sensitivity on both sides to an election this close.  This is a difficult time for former Senator Coleman and his family, and he is entitled to the opportunity to concede this election graciously.  But we cannot let this drag on forever.

“I hope that former Senator Coleman and all of our Republican colleagues will choose to respect the will of the people of Minnesota.  They have chosen a new Senator, Al Franken, and his term must and will begin soon.”

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