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Final Senate freshman set for ‘maiden speech’

Florida’s Rubio observes tradition in upper chamber

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2011

When Sen. Marco Rubio delivers his first formal address in the Senate on Tuesday, the Florida Republican will be the last of the 13 freshman senators swept into office in January to give his so-called "maiden speech."

But while almost 5 1/2 months may seem a long wait, the time frame is lightning quick compared with decades past, when first-term senators often waited a year or more to officially address their colleagues on the Senate floor.

In the past, "the senior senators would sort of take the freshmen aside and say, 'Don't speak right away, listen, and I'll give you the nod when it's the right time and the right topic' " to speak, said Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie. "It was back in the days when the idea was that freshmen were to be seen and not heard."

In the present-day media-driven, Twitter-happy political world, it's unrealistic - almost impossible - for a newbie senator to wait more than a few months to deliver his or her maiden speech.

"Nowadays, constituents expect their members to be fully engaged right from the start, and so it's not surprising sometimes [freshmen senators] give speeches in their first week or so," Mr. Ritchie said.

Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, gave the Senate's first maiden speech of the 112th Congress on Feb. 1, when he talked about health care. By April, every freshman but Mr. Rubio had taken the plunge.

Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said the Florida lawmaker waited to give his speech in large part out of respect for the chamber's traditions.

"It was a function of wanting to wait to have a better sense of the institution and, really, his place in the Senate," Mr. Burgos said.

Mr. Rubio also was "waiting for a moment when some of the biggest debates [in Congress] all year are reaching a critical point," the spokesman said.

While historical protocol dictated that freshman serve an unofficial apprenticeship before earning the privilege to speak in the chamber, the unwritten rule wasn't always followed.

In 1907, Sen. Jeff Davis, an Arkansas Democrat known as a skilled orator, gave his first speech only days after taking office, saying, "It was not my purpose when I entered this honorable body to retain my seat in silence, if possible, until my hair should have grown gray in service."

The now-deceased Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, didn't give his maiden speech until well into his second full year in the Senate, in 1964. Yet his older brother, John, waited less than five months before taking the floor.

"Senators that came as late as the 1950s were basically told to wait a bit," Mr. Ritchie said. "Some did, some didn't, and eventually very few did."

A senator's maiden speech typically reflects a hot topic of the time, an issue vital to the lawmaker's home state or a pet issue.

While maiden speeches largely are ceremonial affairs, their symbolic importance is not lost on those delivering them, with newly minted senators using the opportunity to set a tone for their careers.

Mr. Rubio last week released an Internet video to encourage the public to watch his speech and post comments about it on his Facebook page.

"One's first Senate speech has always been viewed as a very significant one, and certainly for a freshman member in the minority, it's not often you have a chance to have a platform like this," Mr. Burgos said.

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