Memorable Moments on the Senate Floor

The U.S. Senate prides itself on being the greatest deliberative body in the world, and few would question its devotion to deliberating. Senate speechmaking is a part of that process, and this past year has brought performances on the Senate floor that will not soon be forgotten.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It is called the world's greatest deliberative body. Well, the US Senate has had a tumultuous year. It's been marked by fights over nominations and battles over national security. NPR's David Welna covered many of those Senate showdowns and has this look back.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

It's been almost a year since Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader, opened the first session of the 109th Congress on a wary note.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): The civility that once was the hallmark of this body has eroded over time, and I recognize and we all recognize it will take time to regain it. But we must begin, and we must begin now.

WELNA: Two days later came the first big battle; it was over President Bush's nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general. At his confirmation hearing, Gonzales declared as a human being he was sickened and outraged by photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Nominee for US Attorney General): But as someone who may be head of the department, I obviously don't want to provide any kind of legal opinion as to whether or not that conduct might be criminal.

WELNA: Which brought this from Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): That's malarkey, pure malarkey. So we're looking for candor, old buddy. We're looking for you, when we ask you a question, to give us an answer, which you haven't done yet. I love you, but you're not very candid so far.

WELNA: Gonzales won confirmation with 60 votes, the bare minimum needed to avoid a filibuster.

Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice also faced fire at her confirmation hearing. California Democrat Barbara Boxer informed Rice she'd vote against her nomination because she didn't believe her.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): Wonderful breaking the glass ceiling and all those beautiful things, which I'm proud of. It's not about that. It's about candor. It's about telling the full story.

WELNA: Rice was quick to defend herself.

Dr. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Nominee for Secretary of State): I can assure you I will be candid. My assessments may not always be ones that you want to hear. They may not always be ones with which you agree. But I will tell you what I think.

WELNA: Rice was confirmed handily. A dozen Democrats and one Independent cast the only votes against her. But President Bush ran into opposition in his own party when he nominated John Bolton be UN ambassador. Ohio Republican George Voinovich stunned the Foreign Relations Committee with this bombshell.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): I've heard enough today that I don't feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton.

WELNA: Bolton's nomination stalled in the Senate. He ultimately became UN ambassador when President Bush gave him a recess appointment.

Meanwhile, seven Republicans joined seven Democrats to head off a Senate blow-up over judicial nominations. The `Gang of 14' forced GOP Leader Frist to back off his threats of abolishing judicial filibusters, a move widely known as the nuclear option and which Frist preferred calling the constitutional option.

Sen. FRIST: Let me be very clear. The constitutional option remains on the table. It remains an option. I will not hesitate to use it if necessary.

WELNA: Democrats declared the nuclear option dead and ended up splitting evenly over the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice.

Next came President Bush's aborted nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Conservative opposition to her infuriated Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): I believe without any question when the history books are written about all this that it will show that the radical right wing of the Republican Party drove this woman's nomination right out of town.

WELNA: Then, in a show of defiance to a threatened White House veto, the Senate voted 90-to-9 for Republican John McCain's amendment barring mistreatment of prisoners.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don't deserve our sympathy. But this isn't about who they are. This is about who we are.

WELNA: The Senate's most dramatic episode came when Democratic Leader Reid excoriated Republicans for not going forward on a probe about how Iraq intelligence was used by the Bush administration.

Sen. REID: Mr. President, enough time has gone by. I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations aren't being conducted, and in accordance with Rule 21, I now move that the Senate go into closed session.

Unidentified Senator: Mr. President, I second the motion.

WELNA: They had forced the Senate into a rare closed session, and Majority Leader Frist was furious.

Sen. FRIST: I'll have to say not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution.

WELNA: Republicans had more to be happy about with the nomination of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. Here's Utah's Orrin Hatch.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I think every conservative in America ought to be pretty tickled with this nominee.

WELNA: Alito's confirmation hearings will be the Senate's next act one week from Monday. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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