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Freshman Senator To His Colleagues: 'The People Despise Us All'

Nebraska's Ben Sasse was elected to the U.S. Senate a year ago this week, one of a dozen Republicans who first won seats that day as their party captured its first majority in the storied chamber in eight years.

And like many of the 5,000 men and women who preceded him in the Senate, he soon came to regard that old sobriquet "World's Greatest Deliberative Body" with a certain irony — if not bitterness.

"Let me flag the painful, top-line takeaway," said Sasse on Tuesday. "No one in this body thinks the Senate is laser-focused on the most pressing issues facing the nation. No one. Some of us lament this; some are angered by it; many are resigned to it; some try to dispassionately explain how they think it came to be. But no one disputes it."

That rather stiff eye-opener came near the start of Sasse's "maiden speech," a half-hour confessional he delivered on the Senate floor, witnessed mostly by clerks and C-SPAN watchers at midafternoon on Tuesday. While he spoke in a clear, level voice from the row of desks farthest from the front, the rest of the chamber's seats were almost entirely unoccupied.

Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing.

That, of course, is par for the course. Senators rarely sit to listen to each other speak, and first-termers often have trouble adjusting to addressing an empty Cave of Winds.

But those who were around got an earful on this afternoon.

"If I can be brutally honest for a moment: I'm home basically every weekend, and what I hear — and what I'm sure most of you hear — is some version of this: A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don't believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess."

Sasse did not spare his own party: "To the Republicans, to those who claim this new majority is leading the way: Few believe that."

And, in reference to rules changes Democratic leaders made to get President Obama's judicial nominations done while they still had the majority last year:

"Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing. And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics?"

There was, of course, no answer to this rhetorical question.

So in sum, Sasse said: "The people despise us all."

Sasse is young enough at 43 to see the Senate as a midcareer challenge, not a cap on his career. Even in a Senate where the average age has been dropping noticeably, Sasse's fresh Midwestern face conveys an eye-catching youthfulness.

He, along with newly christened Speaker Paul Ryan, 45, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both 44, are part of a new generation suddenly taking over in the Grand Old Party.

Of course, they are doing it largely by looking beyond Congress to the White House. Sasse took note of this as well: "To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits: Few believe the country's needs are as important to you as your ambitions."

Maiden speeches are an old tradition, little noticed in our times, by which newly elected senators introduce themselves — usually well after they have settled in to Senate life. Sasse is the last of the 12 Republicans in his freshman class to perform the ritual.

In another era, such speeches were not considered welcome until a new member had served at least a full year — if not longer. But that was when freshmen were expected to be seen and not heard. A Senate seat was considered either a lifetime sinecure or a life sentence ("few die and none retire").

Nowadays, a majority of the Senate has been serving for less than a decade. Rubio, Cruz and Rand Paul of Kentucky are all running for president while still in their first Senate term — just as Barack Obama did eight years ago.

Nonetheless, the occasional maiden speech can draw attention. And the one Ben Sasse delivered is surely worthy of consideration.

Sasse referred several times in his remarks to "Socratic speech," a kind of discourse in which all involved consider not only their own point of view but others' as well. A good executive always takes account of all the arguments, Sasse said.

"Socrates said it was dishonorable to make the lesser argument appear the greater — or to take someone else's argument and distort it so that you don't have to engage their strongest points. Yet here, on this floor, we regularly devolve into bizarre partisan-politician speech. We hear robotic recitations of talking points."

Sasse said he was amazed to find that the people who act like that on C-SPAN turn out to be quite different in person.

"It's weird, because one-on-one, when the cameras are off, hardly anyone here really believes that senators from the other party are evilly motivated — or bribed — or stupid. There is actually a great deal of human affection around here — but again, that's in private, when the cameras aren't on.

Sasse had an unusual path to the Senate. He got a Harvard undergraduate degree, studied at Oxford and got graduate degrees from St. John's College and Yale University (history Ph.D.). He worked for a prestigious business consulting firm, taught history and served as president of Midland University, a small Lutheran college in Fremont, Neb.

Prior to last year he had not sought elective office. But on Tuesday, he showed a thorough acquaintance with some pillars of Senate lore, including four-term Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York (1977-2001) and four-term Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine (1949-73). Both were known for the strength of their intellects and convictions and also for their commitment to bipartisanship in Senate deliberation.

"Each of us," Sasse said, "has an obligation to be able to answer our constituents' question: Why doesn't the Congress work? And what is your plan for fixing the Senate in particular? And if your only answer is that the other party is fully to blame, then we don't get it, and the American people understandably think that we are part of the problem, not the solution."

Sasse also tipped his hat to the longtime Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who devoted his life to lifting up the Senate as the great fulcrum of American democracy. Byrd served from 1959 until his death in 2010, the longest Senate career in history.

Sasse gave no indication of an ambition to serve as long as these antecedents, nor would the political conventions of our time suggest he would or could. But the attitude he brought to his first formal address on the Senate floor should be heard and heeded — no matter how long his Senate career may be.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.