WASHINGTON – The Senate, where seniority is king, toasted Alaska’s Ted Stevens on Thursday as the longest-serving Republican in history – with an asterisk.
Stevens reaches the mark today, surpassing the longevity of the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who, as Stevens noted, started his career as a Democrat.
“I passed this milestone only because Strom made the mistake of being a Democrat for two terms,” quipped the Alaska Republican, who started his Senate career on Christmas Eve 1968.
Stevens, 83, received several standing ovations during a half-hour tribute led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“This is an outsize accomplishment for a man whose name is virtually synonymous with the nation’s largest state. Yet no one who ever crossed paths with Senator Stevens is surprised that he’s achieved it,” McConnell said.
At least twice, Stevens tried to motion his colleagues to sit down.
Stevens’ staff said he was surprised by the event, having expected only “a few words” of recognition from McConnell during morning business. Instead, McConnell delivered a 1,779-word tribute recalling Stevens’ early days in office, when Newsweek magazine described him as “a 5‘6” cigar smoker who hunts moose and earned a reputation as a scrapper in the Alaska House of Representatives.”
The tribute was bipartisan, with Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii – who called Stevens “my brother” – joining in the accolades.
“The relationship between Inouye and Stevens, when the history books are written, will be legendary,” Reid said.
Reid also recalled Stevens’ willingness to join him on a lonely flight to Nevada in 1988 for the funeral of ex-Nevada senator Alan Bible, another Democrat. Why? Out of loyalty to Bible for a vote that had once helped Stevens.
Stevens also was honored later in the day with a lengthy soliloquy by West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator of all time. Byrd, his hands shaking, described Stevens as a “friend” with whom he had never had a cross word.
But it wasn’t all rose petals for Stevens on Thursday.
The Club for Growth, a group that supports limited government and lower taxes, took a shot at both Stevens and Inouye for “their long careers of accumulating pork on the backs of American taxpayers.”
Today will be Stevens’ 13,990th day in office – almost 39 years. In that time, his supporters note, he has put his mark on major fishery, energy, and marine protection legislation.
His major piece of unfinished business, according to supporters and critics alike: opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
Ranking seventh in all-time Senate seniority (behind Inouye, among others who are still in office) Sevens plans to run for an eighth term next year.