Cowan Cracks Wise in Farewell to Senate — And Lauds Colleagues

Photograph by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Senator William M. Cowan of Massachusetts in office before the special election to put in a permanent senator.

It’s a wrap for William “Mo” Cowan’s roughly five-month Senate career, and the Massachusetts Democrat yesterday afternoon offered an often wry commentary on his experience — remarks that took note of the concerns and criticisms buffeting the chamber, but that ended on a positive note.

Cowan, appointed on Jan. 30 to temporarily fill the seat John Kerry gave up to become secretary of state, has a few days left in office before Democrat Ed Markey — a longtime House member who won this week’s special Senate election in Massachusetts — is sworn into the post. But with the Senate wrapping up business as it prepares for a week-long July 4th break, Cowan took to the floor during a break in debate to deliver his valedictory address.

He gave gracious shout outs to the host of folks who on a daily basis assist the Senate’s 100 members — from the Capitol cops to the youthful pages to the food-service workers (who, he said, “look the other way when you go back for seconds … or thirds”).

And then there are the elevator operators, he said with a smile, who “excel at the art of cutting off reporters and annoying questions.”

Cowan, 44, delivered another quip that drolly pinpointed what many see as a prime flaw in the chamber’s operation — its growing adherence to procedures that, in ways that remain a undefined, have achieved etched-in-stone status.

In praising staff aides, he said he was especially appreciative of those who detailed for him “all the rules that matter … which seem to be written nowhere.”

Later on, he took note of the frustration — and girdlock — that has been sparked by the routine use of filibusters — a tactic once gingerly applied. With 60 votes required to end the stalling tactic, the result is that such a “super-majority” is now needed “to pass meaningful legislation,” he said.

His brief Senate tenure, he acknowledged, coincided with “a vexing time” for the institution — a period when its poll numbers are “dismally low” and the public perception is that fierce partisanship trumps all else.

Not so, Cowan insisted, on the latter point. “Congeniality and common respect” still define the chamber more so bitter political fights, he said.

He provided examples.

— Of how he and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul — a Tea Party darling — bonded over their alumni connections to Duke University and their “affection for college basketball.”

— Of how he and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham — who first gained prominance as a House prosecutor in Bill Clinton’s impeachment case — “discussed the comedic genius of Will Ferrell.”

— Of how Ohio Republican Rob Portman — a prime contender in the running mate sweepstakes for Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket last year — “encouraged me every day during my time here.”

As Cowan finished, a warm vibe pervaded the chamber.

Then Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe proceeded to change the subject and trash President Barack Obama’s Tuesday speech on curbing global warming, insisting “the science isn’t there” to support the need for action.

A few minutes later, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley decried the Senate’s handling of the bill to rewrite immigration policy, pronouncing himself “very disappointed” with the process.

And Wyoming Republican John Barrasso turned to his party’s default target for attack, the sweeping health-care law Obama pushed into law three years ago. The president and his supporters “weren’t honest” about the measure’s ramifications, Barrasso avowed.

Though the Senate may be much as Cowan depicted it, it also abhors a rhetorical vacuum.


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