MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota Sen. Al Franken gave his final speech on the floor of the United States Senate Thursday morning.
The speech comes two weeks after Franken announced his intent to resign from the Senate after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.
Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to take over Franken’s seat until the 2018 elections. Smith is expected to run to keep the seat. Republican State Sen. Karin Housley announced Tuesday that she will challenge the incumbent.
Franken says his final day in the Senate will be Jan. 2, 2018.
Watch the entire speech below:
Read the entire speech below:
M.PRESIDENT, this is my final speech on the floor of the United States Senate. I’ve come down here many times, as we all have. We come here to cast our votes on bills and amendments. We come to discuss and debate the issues that are important to our states and to the country. We introduce and explain legislation. And we talk about our states and what we learned on the latest visit to a community health center, a farm, or a small business.
What we don’t talk about all that often, M.PRESIDENT, is the work of all the men and women on our staffs who make all of this possible. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dedicated, hardworking staff—both in Washington and in Minnesota—and I have no doubt that they will go on to do great things and to serve our nation well.
M.PRESIDENT, I’m also very lucky to have a wonderful family that has stood by me throughout the good times and the tough times of being a senator. As senators we have packed schedules. There are late nights, difficult votes on divisive issues, and a lot of time invested in better understanding the challenges that our constituents face every day. And all too often, that important work doesn’t leave enough time for our families. I’m grateful for my wife, my children, and their spouses who stood by me and who helped me to do my work effectively.
And finally, M.PRESIDENT, as I leave the Senate I take great comfort in knowing that my successor, Senator-Designate Tina Smith, has a well-earned reputation for being a smart, diligent, hardworking public servant and I have no doubt she will serve Minnesotans and all Americans exceptionally well.
M.PRESIDENT, when most people think about politics, they think about arguments. The arguments they have around the dinner table. The arguments they have online. And, most of all, the arguments we have here in Washington.
And that’s a big part of the reason why a lot of people, well, just don’t like politics.
Often, the “debate” here in Washington can sometimes seem arcane and tough to understand. Other times—especially in recent years—it can be so bitter that it doesn’t even feel like we’re trying to resolve anything, just venting our spleens at each other.
I get that. I get why people want us to stop arguing and start, well, doing stuff.
But since I am leaving the Senate, I thought I would take a big risk and say a few words in favor of arguments.
After all, there’s no single magic solution that can bring all 100 of us together—because there’s no one set of values that brought all of us here.
I think many of you have heard me talk about what brought me to politics and what makes me a Democrat, and it’s my wife Franni.
When she was 17-months-old, her father, a decorated World War II veteran, died in a car accident, leaving her mom widowed at age 29, with 5 kids.
There was one sibling younger than Franni, that was Bootsie, who was 3 months old. Franni’s family made it—barely, thanks to Social Security survivor benefits. Sometimes they had to turn the heat off in the winter—this was in Portland, Maine—and sometimes, often, they were hungry because there wasn’t enough food, but they made it.
Franni and her three sisters all went to college on combinations of Pell grants and scholarships. At that time a full Pell grant paid for 80 percent of a college education, but today it pays for only about 35 percent.
When Bootsie went to high school, my mother-in-law got a G.I. loan for $300 and went to college. She got three more loans, graduated from college, became a grade school teacher, and because she taught Title I kids—poor kids—all her loans were forgiven.
My brother-in-law went into the coast guard, where he became an electrical engineer.
Every member of Franni’s family became a productive member of society and a member of the middle class.
You know, they tell you in this country to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but first you’ve gotta have the boots. And the federal government, through Social Security survivor benefits and Pell grants and the G.I. bill and Title I—the federal government gave my wife’s family the boots. And that’s why I’m a Democrat. That’s why I’m a Democrat.
Over the years, I’ve heard Democrats and Republicans talk about their own values—the things they believe that brought them to politics, the things that make them care about what happens here.
I have learned so much from listening to the arguments we have in this country, and the arguments we’ve had here in this chamber. I’ve learned from Republicans—learned to respect, if not always agree with, their opinions, and learned how their backgrounds can lead them to reach—in good faith—a conclusion that I never could have imagined.
And, of course, I’ve learned so much from my fellow Democrats. But the person I learned the most from is someone who isn’t here.
For 12 years, the seat I currently occupy was held by Paul Wellstone. As I’ve said before, Paul was a tireless, passionate champion for working families in Minnesota and across the nation. He fought for veterans, for farmers, and for those who simply needed a voice. Paul was my friend. And Paul had a saying that I think perfectly represents the values and the principles for which he fought. He used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” That was his creed.
What Paul meant by that is that the whole country—the working poor, the middle class, and the well-off—the whole country does better when each and every one of us is able to contribute to and participate fairly in our economy and in our democracy.
I think Paul was right. But not everybody does. Some people’s values are different.
Some people believe that those at the top are there for a reason, and that they shouldn’t have to concern themselves with what’s going on in the lives of people who haven’t been so lucky—or even so accomplished.
Some people believe—honestly, legitimately believe—that not everyone deserves to have the same standing in this country. They believe that your standing as a citizen should depend, in part, on where you were born, or what you believe, or who you love, or what you do for a living.
Some people believe that, at some fundamental level, we are all in this on our own.
I don’t agree with any of those values. But I respect that some people hold them. And that’s why arguments matter.
When we argue, whether it’s across a fence with your neighbor or on a cable news show or here on the floor of the Senate, it can help us sharpen our ability to articulate what we want, and challenge us to examine our own views with a more critical eye, and help highlight the choice for the American people.
Because, after all, in a democracy, the people get to choose.
As I prepare to leave the Senate, M. PRESIDENT, I’ve been thinking a lot about my values, and Paul’s values—the values we share with many of my colleagues here in the Senate, and many of the progressive activists I’ve met and worked alongside in Minnesota and around the country.
And that’s because, regrettably, the policies pursued by the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans today could not stand in starker contrast to the principles Paul championed and the values I have fought for during my time in the Senate.
M.PRESIDENT, the values being advanced by the president and his allies in Congress simply don’t represent my belief that our economy, our democracy, and our country work best when they work for everyone.
Indeed, the values propelling the Republican agenda today are about consolidating political and economic power in the hands of corporations and the very wealthy.
Just take the tax bill that Congress passed this week. At virtually each and every step of the process, Republicans drafting this bill chose to embrace the failed trickle-down policies of the past, crafting an enormous, enormous giveaway that benefits their corporate campaign backers and wealthy donors.
For instance, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, by 2027, 83 percent of the benefits in the Republican tax bill will accrue to the top 1 percent of income earners—that’s people who make more than $912,000 a year. 83 percent of the benefits go to the top 1 percent – do we really need to have any other data point? Well, here’s one: at the same time, the Republican tax bill would increase taxes on 35 million low- and middle-income families. During his inaugural address, President Trump vowed that, quote “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” But the Republican tax bill represents a slap in the face to those forgotten men and women. I guess the president forgot about them.
Make no mistake, the Senate-passed version of the Republican tax bill was deeply flawed. But when Republicans later attempted to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills—a process that took place behind closed doors—even more favors were doled out to Republican donors and special interests. New rules were created to give real estate developers like President Trump and his son-in-law the ability to pay less tax on pass-through income. The top individual tax rate, which applies to millionaires and billionaires, was cut to 37 percent—a rate lower than either the House or Senate versions of the bill. And provisions in the original bills that were designed to stop foreign corporations from avoiding taxes by shifting their profits overseas—a practice known as earnings stripping—were dropped altogether.
M.PRESIDENT, the problem in this country is not that the wealthy aren’t doing well enough—after all, the top 1 percent of the country’s population controls nearly 40 percent of its wealth. The problem is that too many working families have been left out of the economic growth that the top 1 percent have enjoyed in recent years. But rather than use the tax reform bill as an opportunity to help those working families, Republicans have instead decided to shower corporations and wealthy donors with tax breaks and special favors.
This tax bill didn’t just come out of the blue, M.PRESIDENT—quite the contrary. This tax bill comes on the heels of countless Republican attempts to shred policies that offer protection to working families and the environment—but the corporations and wealthy donors that support my Republican colleagues believe that these policies stand in the way of their profits. Take health care, for example.
Despite President Trump’s campaign promise that, quote “we’re going to have insurance for everybody,” when his administration attempted to deliver on that promise, House Republicans devised and passed a bill that would have resulted in 23 million fewer people having health insurance, including 14 million people who rely on Medicaid. Facing unprecedented public outcry, Senate Republicans eventually proposed a narrower bill—one that didn’t repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act outright but instead undermined some of its most foundational provisions. But this narrower Senate bill still would have left 16 million more Americans uninsured, all while spiking premiums by 20 percent, according to CBO.
The American people continued to fight, demanding that the Senate kill the bill, and thanks to the incredibly hard work of organizers, activists—including the American Medical Association, by the way—and everyday Americans, that’s exactly what happened—the Republican attempts to repeal the ACA failed.
But it seems my Republican colleagues have not learned their lesson. Finding themselves unable to sustain an open assault on the Affordable Care Act, they instead included a measure in the tax bill that will repeal an essential component of that law—the individual mandate. As a result, 13 million fewer Americans will have health insurance in the years to come. But that doesn’t matter to President Trump and his allies, who claim that they need to repeal this central pillar of Obamacare in order to pay for the massive tax cuts that their wealthy donors demand.Those same wealthy donors also demand that Republicans turn a blind eye to climate change—an existential threat to humanity. Climate change is not just an environmental problem, climate change stands to affect virtually every aspect of our lives, posing a grave threat to public health, national security, our country’s infrastructure, and our economy. Circumstances require that we take immediate action in order to protect the welfare of future generations.
But almost every Republican in Congress refused to take the issue of climate change seriously. They continue to deny the underlying evidence and science behind it, even as Americans suffer the devastating consequences of their denial. This year alone, hurricanes ravaged Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and wildfires raged across the West, most recently in Los Angeles.
We know that climate change makes these extreme weather events worse. And this is just the beginning. What we are witnessing is the beginning of a new normal—a new normal that this country simply cannot endure.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to address climate change while at the same time growing our economy and creating jobs. During the Obama administration, the federal government increased research and development investments in clean energy technology—both through tax credits designed to incentivize investment and through the energy title that I was proud to help write in the Farm Bill, which allowed people in rural America to participate in the clean energy revolution. And those investments paid off. Since 2009, the cost of wind power has decreased by 66 percent, and the cost of solar power has dropped by 85 percent.
But we can do more. I championed an energy efficiency standard that would require utilities to become more efficient. I led legislation to encourage energy storage, a game changer that allows wind and solar to be used when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. And I pushed to deploy distributed energy that makes our grid more resilient and reliable.
But rather than join me and my Democratic colleagues in confronting the challenge of climate change by driving innovation, Republicans ordered a retreat. At the behest of the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests, Republicans have put forward nominees for key environmental posts who cut their teeth defending corporate polluters, not enforcing the laws that keep our air and water clean. And they have pushed an agenda that guts funding for science and innovation. M.PRESIDENT, the Republican strategy of denial and obfuscation isn’t just an affront to good governance, it’s an affront to common sense.
But M.PRESIDENT, the Trump administration and its allies in Congress have never let science or common sense stand in the way of ideology. Time and time again, they have acted to roll back evidence-based, common sense protections put in place to improve the lives of minority or marginalized communities, including women and LGBT people.
For example, in October, the Trump administration announced a new rule that guts a provision in the Affordable Care Act that required health insurance plans to cover birth control free of charge—a policy that has benefited more than 62 million American women. M.PRESIDENT, the ability to access affordable reproductive health care has a powerful effect on the choices that women and families make every day—choices about whether to finish college, buy a home, or start a business. Ensuring that women have access to contraception is vital to the economic security of our families—that’s why I filed a brief in support of the ACA’s contraceptive coverage requirement when it was challenged before the Supreme Court.
But despite the millions of women who have benefited from the policy, and despite the science demonstrating that restricting access to contraception has negative health consequences, the Trump administration eviscerated the policy.
In February, the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidelines that instructed schools how to protect transgender students under a federal law called Title IX. M.PRESIDENT, LGBT students deserve to learn in an environment free from discrimination, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. But far too often, LGBT kids—particularly transgender kids—experience bullying and harassment. When that happens, those students are deprived of an equal education. That’s why I led the Senate in calling on the Obama administration to issue those guidelines back in 2015. Nonetheless, the Trump administration decided to scrap that guidance—a callous and mean-spirited decision that sent a terrible message to LGBT children and their parents, and which took away a tool designed to protect our children. It is our responsibility—not just as senators, but as adults—to protect our children, not turn a blind eye when they face prejudice and cruelty.
But M.PRESIDENT, nothing that Republicans have done is more galling, nothing poses a greater threat to the very fabric of our democracy, than their deliberate and sustained attack on the right to vote. Let’s start with the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a 5-4 opinion in which the Court’s conservative justices effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act and eliminated a vital check on states with a history of discrimination at the polls. After the Shelby County decision, states swiftly began to enact harsh restrictions on the right to vote, and in many cases citing the myth of so-called voter fraud as a justification.
Take North Carolina, for example. Just a few months after Shelby County, the state enacted one of the nation’s strictest voter-ID laws. Without any evidence, the state described the new restrictions as necessary to prevent fraud. And without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, those changes went into effect, keeping poor and minority voters from casting a ballot.
When North Carolina’s restrictions were eventually challenged in court, the Fourth Circuit found that the primary purpose of the restrictions wasn’t to fight fraud, but to make it harder for black people to vote. The court found that, quote “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Now, M.PRESIDENT, the fact that North Carolina’s restrictions stand as a blatant example of race discrimination is undeniable. But the strategy behind adopting such harsh restrictions is even more insidious—the strategy here is designed to ensure that voters who don’t agree with their candidates or their policies aren’t able to vote against them.
M.PRESIDENT, Paul Wellstone’s words are more important today than ever before. “We all do better when we all do better.” I believe that to my core. But M.PRESIDENT, the policies pursued by President Trump and allies are not about lifting people out of poverty, or about giving the politically powerless a louder voice in our democracy. These policies are intended to line the pockets of wealthy donors and to protect the power of those who already wield outsized influence in our democracy. That’s a far cry from Paul’s creed.
But when I think about what’s gone wrong here—when I reflect on how this country is straying so far from the values that I believe a majority of Americans share—I have to say, I think there’s something wrong with the way we’re arguing. And it started long before 2016.
Lurking behind each of those issues isn’t just a difference of opinion or a difference of values. There’s something far worse. A lie.
Take the Trump administration’s efforts to suppress votes.
Shortly after winning the presidential election, then-President-Elect Trump was confronted with the unpleasant fact that he lost the popular vote. He tweeted, quote “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Now, let’s be clear—President Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes. So what he claimed in that tweet is that nearly 3 million fraudulent votes were cast—in fact, he later claimed that between 3 and 5 million illegal votes caused him to lose the popular vote, citing no evidence.
M.PRESIDENT, 138 million votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election. State election and law enforcement officials found virtually no credible evidence of fraud, and no states—not one state—reported any indications of widespread fraud. None. But that didn’t stop the Trump administration from quickly turning the president’s tweets into policy. The White House created a new commission to investigate the president’s wild and unsubstantiated claim—a commission led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a right-wing extremist who has made a career out of trafficking in the voter fraud myth and who was fined for repeatedly lying to a federal court in voter ID litigation. When Kobach was asked whether he believed the president’s claim that millions of people voted illegally, he said, quote “we may never know the answer to that question.” Really? Really?
M.PRESIDENT, this episode could almost be considered funny, if the ramifications weren’t so deadly serious. Kobach’s voter fraud commission requested sensitive information about voters—including the names, dates of birth, party registration, and voting history—from all 50 states. This is information that could lay the groundwork for disenfranchising scores of eligible voters, which is why more than 40 states refused to comply with that request. At the same time, the Trump-Sessions Justice Department quickly dropped legal challenges to discriminatory voting practices in the states, further signaling that protecting the right to vote will no longer be a priority for the Justice Department.
And it’s all based on a lie—and not a lie President Trump came up with. Right-wing conservatives have been raising a false alarm about so-called “voter fraud” for years, despite the fact that no credible evidence has ever been produced demonstrating that it is a real problem.
Or take the Trump administration’s attacks on LGBT rights. Again and again, lurking behind these policies are lies. The lie that advocates of LGBT rights want to trample on people’s religious freedom. The lie that families led by a gay or lesbian couple don’t provide a safe environment for children. The lie that allowing transgender people to use the appropriate bathroom opens the door to sexual assault.
President Trump didn’t invent these lies. But he and his administration proudly repeat them.
Or take the attacks on science, especially climate science. We now have enough evidence to conclude that climate change is real, and it’s man-made. It is a threat to our nation’s security and an existential threat to the planet—Defense Secretary Mattis knows this. And yet, for years, so-called scientists funded by industry have been hard at work casting doubt on the well-established scientific consensus. Heck, a recent Washington Post report revealed that Trump administration officials have prohibited the Centers for Disease Control—our nation’s premier public health and research institution—from using the terms “evidence-based” and “science-based” in budget-planning documents.
President Trump didn’t launch the war on science. But now he’s leading the charge.
Or take health care.
President Trump promised that everyone would have insurance. But an analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office revealed that under the House Republican health care bill, 23 million fewer people would have had health insurance than are currently covered today. 23 million people. And to add insult to injury, the House bill would have hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest. According to the CBO, 14 million of the 23 million people who would have lost coverage under the House Republicans’ plan were Medicaid beneficiaries.
That’s right, despite candidate Trump’s assurances that, quote “everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now” unquote, the Republican bill would have cut funding to Medicaid, a vital safety-net program that ensures that our seniors, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and families with children have access to the health care they need. On top of that, the Republican plan would have driven up the cost of premiums, with older and sicker people experiencing the steepest increases.
Indeed, the health care debate has long been predicated on lies. The lie that, quote “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does” is provide abortion services. The lie that women only rely on birth control because they’re sexually promiscuous. The lie that the Affordable Care Act is collapsing under its own weight, when, in fact, the Trump administration and Republicans here in Congress have been doing everything they can to sabotage it.
And then there’s the tax debate.
Over the last year, Republicans have repeatedly claimed that they would advance policies designed to benefit middle class families, not the wealthy. President Trump pledged not to forget the, quote “the forgotten men and women of our country.” Steven Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury, promised that the Republican tax plan would help the middle class. He vowed that any tax cuts for upper-income earners would be offset by getting rid of deductions that benefit the wealthy—that’s what he said. Let me quote Secretary Mnuchin. He said, quote “there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.” But again, M.PRESIDENT, 83 percent of the benefits in the Republican tax bill go to the richest 1 percent. What he said just isn’t true.
Even just the other day, the White House Press Secretary claimed that President Trump himself will pay more because of this bill. We don’t know for sure exactly what its effect will be on his personal finances, because the White House has refused to release his tax returns, claiming—in another lie—that he can’t release them because they’re under audit. You can release your tax returns while you’re under audit. What we do know, M.PRESIDENT, is that the tax breaks in the Republican bill for real estate developers like President Trump and his family will save him millions upon millions of dollars.
I could go on and on and on and on. You know, before I came to the Senate, I was known as something of an obsessive on the subject of honesty in public discourse. But, as I leave the Senate, I have to admit that it feels like we are losing the war for truth. Maybe it’s already lost.
And if that’s the case—if that’s what happens—then we have lost the ability to have the kinds of arguments that help build consensus, or at least help the American people make informed choices about the issues that affect their lives.
So what is to be done? Who will stand up and fight for a more honest debate—to insist that, even though we have a different set of opinions, we cannot honorably advance our competing agendas unless we use the same set of facts.
Well, I hope that my colleagues—on both sides of the aisle—will stand up for truth. The thing is, I have spent enough time with my Republican friends over the last eight and a half years to know that you are motivated by values, just like Democrats. I just hope that you will fight for those values forthrightly.
But, at the end of the day, it’s going to be up to the American people, just like it always has been. We will always have the democracy we deserve, if not the government we want. It’s going to take ordinary Americans deciding to become more informed consumers of political news and opinion—and deciding that they’re willing to be part of the argument themselves, instead of simply tuning it all out as noise. And if they do, I know that we will get this country back on track.
In October, 15 years after we lost Paul, I took to the Senate floor to remember him and to celebrate his life. Paul understood—better than anyone I know—the meaning and the power of politics, and I think he would have a lot to say about where we find ourselves today. Paul said, quote “Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.”
Even in the face of everything that is happening today, I still believe in Paul’s words. “Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.” I know those words to be true because I know that the American people still believe in justice and equality and opportunity—and I see evidence of it every day.
I saw it in January, when more than 4 million people across the United States joined the Women’s March, standing in solidarity with their mothers and sisters, daughters and wives. I saw it later that same month, after President Trump issued an executive order seeking to ban travelers from Muslim-majority countries from entering our country, when hundreds of lawyers responded to a call for help and rushed to airports, offering their services and support to affected families.
I saw it in May, when a transgender boy in Wisconsin who was discriminated against by his school had the courage to take them to court, and he won. I saw it in September, when tens of thousands of Americans mobilized in opposition to attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and succeeded in killing the bill. And I saw it at the ballot box, when voters in Virginia and Alabama resisted the temptation to give in to anger and cynicism and instead exercised their right to vote.
“Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.” The American people know that to be true, and they fill me with hope for our future.