WASHINGTON — It was a subdued Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who took to the Senate floor Wednesday, perhaps for the last time, to give her farewell speech after nearly 20 years as a U.S. senator.
"I want to thank the people of Texas for asking me to represent them in Washington," said Hutchison, first elected in a special election in 1993 to succeed former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, who became secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration.
Hutchison told the Star-Telegram just as she was about to enter the Senate chamber that the mood created by last week's massacre in Newton, Conn., especially the 20 young children, and Monday's death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, had cast a pall over any kind of celebration.
"I think there's a tone of sadness," she said. Had she given her speech a week ago, before the shootings, as had been expected, the senator said she thought the atmosphere would have been completely different.
In her speech, Hutchison thanked her family, her husband Ray and their 11-year old children, Bailey and Houston, and also her parents, colleagues and staff for their support.
Hutchison's voice broke when she spoke of her parents: "I would not be here today were it not for my parents, who gave me the gifts of strong values, unwavering support and the education to be whatever I wanted to be." Hutchison grew up in La Marque, near Galveston.
Although the chamber and the galleries were largely empty, the benches for staffers at two corners of the floor were packed with current and former Hutchison aides, whom she acknowledged gratefully in her remarks.
The 69-year-old senior senator from Texas struck a note for bipartisanship while acknowledging how deeply divided the nation has become.
"Congress suffers a great deal of criticism for its partisan acrimony," she said. "But while we may disagree politically, and air our opposition in this chamber, it is the conversation behind the scenes that cements and defines our relationships. I will leave the Senate knowing I have worked with men and women of great patriotism, intellect and heart from both sides of the aisle."
Hutchison spoke of her legislative accomplishments and how many of them involved teaming up with a Democratic colleague.
She frequently worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "We passed the Feinstein-Hutchison Breast Cancer Stamp bill that, through voluntary purchase, has raised $72 million for breast cancer research," she said. "And Senator Feinstein and I took the Amber Alert for abducted children nationwide, which has accounted for rescuing almost 600 children since its passage."
The Amber Alert, a nationwide alert system, was named in honor of Amber Hagerman of Arlington who was abducted and murdered in 1996.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other senators praised Hutchison in floor speeches after her swan song.
"This is an historic moment for many reasons," said Cornyn. "We are paying tribute to an extraordinary woman who has made history by being the first female United States Senator (from Texas) and someone who spent the last two decades fighting for common-sense values here in our nation's capital."
Likening her to the Energizer Bunny for being "tireless," Cornyn said she was "relentless in her pursuit of what she believes is in the best interest of the constituents in our state."
Cornyn said he hoped to get the homemaker IRA law, championed by Hutchison, named in her honor before Congress adjourns. The law enables nonworking spouses to contribute to a tax-free retirement fund.
In an interview, Hutchison said, "I'd be very excited" to have it named for her. "I'm so honored," she said.