(WASHINGTON) — Choking up twice during a farewell speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John Kerry delivered a dissenting opinion about Washington’s so-called dysfunction days before taking over as the next secretary of state.
“On occasion, we have all heard a senator leave here and take their leave condemning the Senate for being broken, for having become an impossible setting in which to try to do the people’s business,” said Kerry, D-Mass. “I do not believe the Senate is broken, certainly not as an institution. There’s nothing wrong with the Senate that can’t be fixed by what’s right about the Senate.”
Kerry, a 29-year Senate veteran, admitted that when he first came to the Senate in 1985 everything seemed to work easier. These days, he said, part of the problem on Capitol Hill is a lack of “courage” from individual senators.
“If the Senate favors inaction over courage and gimmicks over common ground, the risk is not that we will fail to move forward,” he said. “It is that we will fall behind, we will stay behind and we will surrender our promise.”
But the senator, 69, said those problems are not insurmountable, avoiding casting the whole Senate as a body paralyzed by dysfunction like so many other departing senators have done recently.
If anything, Kerry said he believes the spirit of the Senate is starting to turn around.
“There are new whispers of desire for progress, rumors of new coalitions and a sense of possibility, whether it is on energy or immigration,” he said. “I am deeply impressed by a new generation of senators who seem to have come here determined not to give in to the cynicism but to get the people’s business done.”
Kerry called on his colleagues, many of whom were sitting at their desks on the Senate floor to watch his speech, to make the change within themselves in the bitter debates that are ahead for the Senate.
“Only senators, one by one in their own hearts, can change the approach to legislating,” Kerry said. “The Senate cannot break unless we let it.”
During his tenure in the Senate, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, rose to chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His legislative and international affairs victories included the 2010 U.S.-Russia treaty, his early work on the Iran-Contra scandal, and veteran’s affairs.
He noted that during his time in the Senate, huge strides were made on turning a page on gay rights, a reflection of how the body can change and develop over time.
“In 1993, I testified before Strom Thurmond’s armed services committee pushing to lift the ban on gays serving in the military,” he said. “And I ran into a world of misperceptions. I thought I was on a Saturday Night Live skit. Today, at last, that policy is gone forever and we are a country that honors the commitment of all willing to fight and die for our country. We’ve gone from a Senate that passed DOMA over my objections to one that just welcomed its first openly gay senator.”
After a farewell tour of Massachusetts Thursday, Kerry will be sworn in as the next secretary of state on Friday afternoon in a private, small ceremony at the State Department, replacing Hillary Clinton.
As he prepares for his diplomatic post, Kerry said that he’s aware that his credibility and the country’s credibility are determined by what happens in Washington.
“If we use the time to posture politically in Washington, we weaken our position across the world,” he said. “If democracy deadlocks here, we raise doubts about the democracy everywhere.”
The senator – who was the 2004 Democratic nominee for president – joked that this was not the original track that he’d envisioned for leaving the Senate.
“Eight years ago, I admit that I had a very different plan, slightly different, anyway, to leave the Senate – but 61 million Americans voted that they wanted me to stay here with you,” Kerry said. “I learned that sometimes the greatest lesson in life comes not from victory but from dusting yourself off after a defeat and starting over when you get knocked down.”
Kerry is the 10th-most-senior senator and the second-longest-serving senator in his seat.
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