By KEVIN DIAZ
April 14, 2007
Stevens reaches the mark on Friday, 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 was also 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.
Fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was also on hand to honor the man she called "Uncle Ted," telling the Senate, "What you all need to appreciate is that so much of the history of Ted Stevens is the history of Alaska."
Indeed, as McConnell recalled, Stevens was a young lawyer in the Department of Interior when he stood beside President Eisenhower and traced the borders of the 49th state.
He also recalled some of Stevens' early legislative battles in the Senate, including the time he called a Democratic committee chair an "SOB" on the Senate floor for reneging on a promise to allow a vote on an amendment Stevens wanted.
The incident drew a rebuke from Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who, upon hearing the full back-story, got Stevens' amendment passed in Mansfield's own name.
"Ted never tires of fighting for the people of Alaska," Reid said. "But if you ask his staff, they'll say he just never tires."
Stevens was appointed to the Senate by Republican Gov. Walter Hickel to succeed Democratic Sen. E.L. Bartlett, who died just before Christmas in 1968. Stevens praised Bartlett as a "mentor" Thursday in impromptu remarks.
Friday 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.
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Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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