WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich gave his colleagues a tearful farewell Thursday, touting his legislative accomplishments and telling a few wry anecdotes during a lengthy floor speech to an audience of staffers, a handful of Democratic senators and his wife, who watched from the balcony above.
Begich lost his re-election campaign in November by a narrow margin to Republican Dan Sullivan, who's in Washington this week preparing to begin his six-year term in January.
With Congress poised to finish business here, several senators gave goodbye speeches Thursday, with Begich delivering his shortly after noon.
Gripping the corners of the desk in front of him, the senator choked up a few times as he spoke for about 20 minutes, recounting a Washington escapade involving his son and some snow shovels, praising his wife as "incredible" and pointing out that his term in the Senate had coincided with a period of economic growth.
"Every Alaskan out there felt what this economy has done," he said. "So the naysayers out there, it's just not accurate."
As his staff -- some of them in tears -- sat in chairs along the walls of the Senate chamber, Begich also touched on specific policies he pushed during his term, from an effort to provide veterans with better health care to his fight against genetically modified salmon -- otherwise known as Frankenfish, with Begich stressing that his crusade against the organisms intended no offense to Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who was sitting across the aisle.
While Begich's speech included some grumbling about the "naysayers," and those who spend their time "talking about bad things," his message ended on a positive note as he told the audience it had been a "true honor" to serve Alaska.
"There's no place like serving in this body and doing what I could to make a difference," Begich said. "Mr. President, I yield the floor."
After he finished, with hugs from Franken, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and even Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- who campaigned against Begich in the fall -- a parade of Democratic senators rose one by one to say their own goodbyes.
Mark Warner, a Virginia senator who barely survived his own re-election campaign, said Begich was one of a few senators he classifies as "chronic optimists." New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, who visited Alaska in August as Begich's guest, recited a few lines of the poetry of Maya Angelou and ended by telling Begich: "I know that God ain't finished with you yet."
In an interview afterward in a small, windowless office in the basement of the Capitol, Begich said the comments from his colleagues had been "humbling." And he was eager to talk about the legislation he'd worked on over the last few weeks during Congress' lame-duck session, including reauthorization of a bill funding the Coast Guard and a new measure to insulate veterans' benefits from a government shutdown.
While the Coast Guard bill successfully moved through Congress, other key legislation is still stuck, including two measures pertaining to Alaska Native issues. One is the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act, a Begich-sponsored measure that would give tribes more power to manage crimes, and new access to federal funding -- though passage appears unlikely.
It's also unclear whether Congress will repeal a key provision in the Violence Against Women Act that exempted Alaska from giving tribes jurisdiction over nonmembers who commit crimes on tribal land.
There's strong tribal support in Alaska to repeal the provision, and a bill to do so has passed the Senate with support from Begich and Murkowski. But it still needs to pass the House.
Begich said he thought Rep. Don Young would be able to move the bill forward, but in a separate interview Thursday, Young said that he's had problems convincing a key Republican committee chair, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, of the bill's merits.
"He's still adamantly against it," Young said. "Now, is the leadership going to roll him? That's another question. ... If we don't get it done, we have to go back to the drawing board and do it again."
Other Begich priorities are also likely to be threatened or stifled by the Republican Senate majority that will take office next month -- including some of his campaign platform planks like raising the federal minimum wage, putting more money into the Social Security system, and increasing women's access to reproductive health care.
"I think minimum wage isn't happening," he said. "And I think some of the other issues that are out there -- women's health and reproductive rights -- will be at risk."
Despite his loss in the election, Begich maintained that Alaskans still support his positions on those issues.
The attacks against him over the course of his re-election campaign, he pointed out, often tied him to President Barack Obama and criticized Begich's two terms as mayor of Anchorage.
"They never campaigned against my issues in the Senate," Begich said. "Why? 'Cause every single one of those issues Alaska appreciated, and they knew it."
Asked about his plans after Congress finishes its business, Begich didn't address speculation from his political allies in Anchorage that he is considering running for mayor.
"I'm spending time with my family and friends and enjoying the holidays," he said.