Washington, DC—Nevada Senator Harry Reid made the following remarks on the Senate floor this afternoon at the opening of the 112th Congress. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“Happy new year, and happy new year to all my colleagues – those returning to the Senate and those taking office today for the first time.
“I am honored, humbled and will forever be grateful that the people of Nevada have entrusted me with another term as their Senator. I will continue working hard to create jobs for the people of my state and get our economy back on track.
“I am also grateful for the continued support and confidence of my caucus, which has again given me the honor of serving as its Leader. Neither title – Senator and Majority Leader – is a responsibility I take lightly, or for granted.
“They say you can never step in the same river twice. New water flows in, replacing the old and continually renewing the river. The Senate is the same.
“This body never stops changing. Every two years – and occasionally more frequently – new Senators take their seats in this chamber. They join the Senate family and this ever-evolving team of 100 tasked with moving the country forward.
“But our fundamental responsibilities and traditions anchor us in that river. Our respect and reverence for the people we serve and this institution never wavers or changes.
“According to academics, pundits, and congress-watchers, the 111th Congress, the last Congress, was the most productive in American history. But many challenges and opportunities still lie before the new Congress that starts today. We have to do even more to help middle-class families, to create jobs, to hasten our energy independence, to improve our children’s education and to fix our broken immigration system.
“We also have to make sure the Senate can operate in a way that allows the people’s elected legislators to legislate. So we will soon debate some reforms to Senate procedure – reforms proposed not for the sake of change itself, or for partisan gain, but because the current system has been abused, and abused gratuitously. The filibuster in particular has been abused in truly unprecedented fashion.
“There are strong passions on both sides of this debate. There are nearly as many opinions about what to do about these abuses as there are Senators. But let us start the conversation with some facts:
“There were about as many filibusters in the last two Congresses as there were in the first six-and-a-half decades that the cloture rules existed.
“There were nearly as many filibusters in just the last two years as there were in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and half of the 1970s combined.
“In the entire 19th century, the Senate saw fewer than a dozen filibusters. Now we see that many in a month.
“Many of those recent filibusters were terribly unproductive. Many of them prevented us from even holding a debate on a bill, let alone an up-or-down vote. And after we wasted hour after hour and day after day, many of those bills passed and many of those nominees were confirmed overwhelmingly or unanimously.
“I have been forced to use my right as Majority Leader to fill the amendment tree more than I would have liked to for a simple reason: Rather than offer amendments to improve legislation or compromise for the greater good – as members of this body have done for generations – the current minority has offered amendments simply to waste time, to delay us from proceeding to a bill or to score political points.
“Finally, these rules are central to the Senate, but they are not sacrosanct. Senate procedure and cloture rules have changed since this institution was founded, when necessary and after serious consideration. Those decisions have never been made without great deliberation, and no future changes should be made any differently.
“The recent abuses we’ve seen have hurt the Senate and they hurt the country. They hurt our economic recovery and they hurt middle-class families. They hurt the institutions that lead and shape America because they keep public servants and judges from their posts for no reason other than mere partisanship.
“Even Chief Justice Roberts criticized the Senate a few days ago for how few judges we confirm, and how slowly we do so. His criticism and concern are well founded. I hope all my colleagues consider the Chief Justice’s warning and what it means for the pursuit of justice in this country.
“This is the bottom line: We may not agree yet on how to fix the problem – but no one can credibly claim problems don’t exist. No one who has watched this body operate since the current minority took office can say it functions just fine. That would be dishonest. No one can deny that the filibuster has been used for purely political reasons – reasons far beyond those for which this protection was invented and intended.
“So in the coming days, let’s come together to find a solution. That’s why we’re here. United States Senators must solve problems, not create them.
“The last time Congress convened without Robert Byrd as a Member, Harry Truman was President. Forty-two of our 100 Senators hadn’t even been born yet.
“No one knew the Constitution better than Robert Byrd, and no one revered it more. He taught many of us many things. Among them, he taught me to carry the Constitution with me every day. I do. I always have this copy of our founding document in my pocket, signed by Senator Byrd, one of its most fervent defenders.
“He loved the Constitution not just because of what is written there, but how those words werewritten – how it all came together. He knew that our Constitution was created through compromise. At a moment of particular partisan strife 15 years ago, Senator Byrd came to this floor and said the following:
“‘I hope that we will all take a look at ourselves on both sides of this aisle and understand also that we must work together in harmony and with mutual respect for one another. This very charter of government under which we live was created in a spirit of compromise and mutual concession. And it is only in that spirit that a continuance of this charter of government can be prolonged and sustained.’
“Our friends in the House have decided to begin their daily business by reading the Constitution. In these first few minutes of the new Senate session, I think we should reflect on Senator Byrd’s wise reminder of its history.
“And like the Constitution, the agreement that established two separate and different houses in the legislative branch was itself a compromise. As much as ever before, our two branches need to find common ground if we are going to be productive for the people we serve together.
“’In that same speech 15 years ago, Senator Byrd reminded us that ‘the welfare of the country is more dear than the mere victory of party.’ I think we would do well to heed those words as we debate and decide how to best serve the nation and its people in this new year.
“Senators come and go, majorities and minorities rotate like a rolling wheel, and records of service are written and rewritten. The only constant in our democracy is change. Sixteen Senators who were here just weeks ago have moved on, and 16 new ones now take their seats. Laws that governed this nation and rules that govern this body continue to evolve carefully and by necessity.
“The most important change we can make in the 112th Congress is to work better and more closely as teammates, not as opponents – as partners, not as partisans – to fulfill our Constitutional responsibility to pursue a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”