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Mr. LEAHY addressed the Chair.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Vermont.
Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I will be very brief on this. There was another unanimous consent request just now to which the distinguished senior Senator from Nebraska objected. I join in that objection. The Senator from Nebraska is a distinguished veteran. In fact, he is the only person I have ever served with in either body that has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is a servant of his country in every sense of the word.
Mr. President, the reason we were objecting is not that people would hesitate to vote on this, but a 2-hour proposal is not realistic. We are dealing here with a proposal to amend the Constitution of the United States. That is something that, as Madison put it, should be reserved for `certain great and extraordinary occasions.'
This is a serious issue--one deserving of our full attention, our most thoughtful consideration, and our most serious debate. Instead, we are asked to consider this at the most hectic time of the entire legislative calendar--at the end of a session when the attention of Senators quite properly is focused on passing the necessary appropriations bills so that we will not once again shut down the Federal Government. This is inappropriate timing. I might say that it is entirely unnecessary.
This amendment was reported by the Judiciary Committee on June 24, over 3 months ago. The committee report was sent to the Senate on September 1, over a month ago. This amendment could have been brought up at any time.
I ask, why is it being proposed to be brought up now? It would be nothing less than irresponsible for us to consider it in the short, hectic time line that is available. As if this matter could be made worse, we are asked to consider it not only during 2 hours of debate, but also when one of our most distinguished colleagues, also a distinguished veteran of World War II and of the Korean conflict, Senator Glenn, necessarily is absent on a dangerous and important project on behalf of the Nation.
Frankly--I don't want to interrupt the conversation going on to the right of me, Mr. President. So I will withhold for a moment.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. May we please have order on the Senate floor?
The Senator from Vermont.
Mr. LEAHY. I thank the Chair.
No one has fought harder for the flag than John Glenn. No one has fought harder than he to protect the Bill of Rights. It shocks and really offends me that the proponents of this amendment would take advantage of his absence to debate this proposal as he embarks once again in harm's way in the service of the United States.
I am astounded to have something as important as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States called up at this late date in the session. We are less than a week away from adjournment. We have important work to do--work that cannot wait. And to call this up seems even less responsible when you consider the restraint of some of our other Members.
This is not the only constitutional amendment pending before the Congress. The Senator from Arizona, Mr. Kyl, and the Senator from California, Mrs. Feinstein, have worked long and hard on an amendment to the Constitution to deal with the rights of victims of crime. While I have not supported that amendment and very much am for a statutory approach to that important issue, I know that it was propounded in a responsible fashion. Both Senator Kyl and Senator Feinstein came to the floor just a few days ago, on September 28, to acknowledge that as much as they support the amendment, there simply is not time left in the session to consider it properly.
The Senator from Arizona made this point: `It has been very difficult in the waning days of the session to get floor time to take up even the most mundane of bills, because the Senate is very much concentrated on getting the appropriations bills passed so that we can fund the Government.' He went on to note: `We understood that for something as important as amending the Constitution we want to do it right. The last thing Senator Feinstein and I would ever do is hurry an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to try to push this through without an adequate debate without giving everyone an opportunity to have their say.'
The last thing we would ever do, as these two distinguished Senators said, is to hurry an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Frankly, that should be the last thing any U.S. Senator should do--Republican or Democrat. But to ask to consider an amendment to the Constitution that would for the first time in our history cut back on the First Amendment and to propose that the Senate do so under a 2-hour time agreement would be just that. It comes across as just politics.
The sponsor of this amendment, the distinguished senior Senator from Utah, told reporters last Friday that he did not have the votes to win it, that this amendment was not going to pass. If it is not going to pass, why are we even being asked to bring it up as a constitutional amendment in these waning days? It is because it is not a question of passing this amendment that the request is being made. It is to get some material for a campaign commercial. It is for a sound bite, for 30-second attack ads, politics at its worst. It has less to do with passing an amendment than with avoiding things that we should be doing, like HMO reform, or protecting the Social Security system, or protecting veterans' health care.
In the closing days of a session, where Congress has not passed a budget, which was required to be passed by April 15, where both sides flirt with the idea of what might happen with another Government shutdown, we should be completing the matters that must be completed this week.
Obviously, there will be amendments that may come up from all sides for political points. But the one place that should be off limits for such political points is the Constitution of the United States--this short and powerful document that holds the greatest democracy history has ever known together. We should not trivialize it by talking about a 2-hour debate to amend it.
Mr. President, even as we speak here today, this Congress is facing a major test of our Constitution just down the hall in the other body. This is a test that no matter how one looks at it, no matter what position one takes, whether that of special prosecutor Starr, that of the President, or that of anybody else, the American people, no matter how they feel about this, have some sense that the bedrock of our country is our Constitution, and somehow the Constitution, if upheld by 535 people, men and women who are sworn in a most solemn oath to uphold that Constitution, that somehow the Constitution will pull us through.
Mr. President, having said that, I believe that no matter how much politics may or may not get played, that in the end the American people will be justified in relying on us and the Constitution. But we do not give them hopes in that if we in turn trivialize the Constitution.
At one time this year, I am told, there were over 100 amendments filed in the Congress to the Constitution--over 100 amendments. Somehow some feel that Congress should be considering over 100 amendments and asking this great country to consider 100 amendments to its Constitution.
Mr. President, the genius of our Constitution and the reason why this democracy has been able to survive is that we have been very careful about amending it--extremely careful about amending it, because we like the integrity of it, the consistency of it, and in some ways the comfort of a Constitution that we know so well.
So we should never hurry through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We should never try to push one through without an adequate debate. We should never try to do it without giving everyone an opportunity to have their say. Especially today, Mr. President, with the crisis the country faces, we of all people--the Members of the U.S. Senate--should make it very clear to the country that we revere the Constitution, and that, whatever else we may get involved in with regard to politics, the Constitution will not be part of that.
There are over a quarter billion Americans--over a quarter of a billion Americans. Only 100 of us get the opportunity to serve in this Chamber at any time. The seat I now hold, in the last 58 years only two Vermonters have held this seat. I am one of the two in 58 years. It is a great privilege. Frankly, it is one that humbles me every day when I come to work. I still feel the same thrill coming up this Hill and coming into this Chamber as I felt when I was a day away from being a 34-year-old prosecutor in Vermont and was the junior-most Member of the U.S. Senate.
Part of that thrill is to know that it is a rare opportunity, a rare privilege, an honor that I have never been absolutely sure I deserve, but one I cherish, given to me by the people of Vermont to represent them and to speak as one of the 100 voices for this country,
in full knowledge that there will be somebody else outstanding at this seat who will also represent my State of Vermont and the United States. But I hope that they will carry with them the same reverence for the Constitution that I feel I carry. There will be times to amend the Constitution. We did it after the tragic death of President Kennedy to allow for the succession of a Vice President. Time showed the necessity for it and the American public came together and knew the need for it.
But let us make it very clear how we feel about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as the 100 who hold this responsibility, so that the American people know that if we are going to change our Constitution, we will do it with real debate and real consideration, and all 100 of us will be able to stand up on this floor and vote.
Now, the entire Senate has known--in fact, the Nation has known--for weeks that Senator Glenn would be unavailable this week, and certainly that alone would be a reason not to bring this up now. Senator Glenn is one of the most distinguished Americans of all time. He obviously should have a chance to vote on this. So I am glad the Senator from Nebraska has lodged the objection he did. I concur with it. I have voted on this proposed constitutional amendment before. I am not afraid to do so again. But the First Amendment, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights deserve more than cursory attention.
Let us all make it clear to the people of this country that the Constitution stands first and foremost. We serve here only for the time our States allow us to serve. The Constitution predated us and will be here after us.
I see the distinguished majority leader once again in the Chamber, and so I will yield the floor.
Warren S. Apel