This morning, the Senate was mostly consumed with various votes on a landmark food safety bill, dealing with amendments banning earmarks and other efforts by Republican Tom Coburn to scuttle the bill. But after all the partisan squabbling over the bill, and a long speech by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) cheering its passage, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain took to the floor. And rather than bemoan the new costly bill and its pile of regulations, McCain instead took a very different tone. He spent the next few minutes paying tribute to outgoing Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), who was defeated in the recent election in his bid for another term.
McCain, who recently pledged not to work with any Democrats on immigration reform, choked up as he said, “Without intending it as a commentary on his successor, I have to confess I think the Senate will be a much poorer place without Russ Feingold in it.” He went on to talk about his work with Feingold on trying to reform the campaign finance system, and he credited the Wisconsin senator for being true to his beliefs about the evils of soft money, even when his job was on the line:
We don’t often hear anymore about members of Congress who distinguish themselves by having the courage of their convictions; who risk their personal interests for what they believe is in the public interest. I’ve seen many examples of it here, but the cynicism of our times – among the political class and the media and the voters tends to miss examples of political courage or dismiss them as probable frauds or, at best, exceptions that prove the rule. In his time in the Senate, Russ Feingold, every day and in every way, had the courage of his convictions. And though I am quite a few years older than Russ, and have served in this body longer than he has, I confess I have always felt he was my superior in that cardinal virtue.
McCain, who has lost much of his “maverick” status in the Senate since running for president, seemed heartfelt in his tribute and his sadness at Feingold’s departure also seemed genuine. He concluded by saying:
I can’t do justice in these remarks to all of Russ’ many qualities or express completely how much I think this institution benefited from his service here and how much I benefited from knowing him. I lack the eloquence. I don’t think he is replaceable. We would all do well to keep his example in our minds as we serve our constituents and country and convictions. We couldn’t have a better role model.
I have every expectation we will remain good friends long after we have both ended our Senate careers. But I will miss him here. Every day. And I will try harder to become half the public servant he is. Because his friendship is an honor, and honors come with responsibilities.
McCain’s speech was a rather sad reminder about the sorry state of the nation’s campaign finance rules. Not only is one of the crafters of major campaign finance reform legislation leaving the Senate, but his legacy has been all but demolished by the Supreme Court in recent years, most notably with its Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate money in elections. But McCain’s tribute to Feingold also served as a reminder of happier days in the Senate when Democrats and Republicans actually did work together once in a while to tackle the hard work of solving some of the nation’s more pressing problems. When McCain said he was going to miss Feingold, it was clear that he misses those days, too.