Invoking spirit of late Sen. John McCain, Sen. Mark Kelly delivers first Senate speech

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., is joined by Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, as Kelly arrives to deliver his maiden speech to the Senate at the Capitol in Washington on Aug. 4, 2021.
Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Arizona Republic

Sen. Mark Kelly, whose election last year to fill the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s sixth term helped Democrats clinch control of the chamber, used his first floor speech in the Senate to highlight his work on behalf of Arizonans and the state's economy in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, watching from the Senate gallery as his guest, Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut and naval aviator, spoke of his admiration of the late senator. 

“It’s his example of bipartisanship, of independence, that continues to demand more of us,” Kelly said. “So I’m going to continue focusing on delivering results, on beating this virus and reinventing our economy for the future so that hardworking Arizonans have every opportunity to succeed.

“Arizonans sent me here to have their backs. And that’s what I intend to do.”

In a statement to The Arizona Republic, McCain commended Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

"I know Gabby and his family are very proud of his achievements," she said. "I, too, am proud of Senator Kelly’s focus on protecting Arizona and the Nation and the McCain legacy of Independence and bi-partisanship. It was an honor to be in the Senate Gallery today as his guest and I look forward to working with Senator Kelly in the future tackling the challenges for our Great State and the Nation."

McCain got a standing ovation, and a number of senators greeted her in the gallery.

During his 20-minute speech, Kelly noted the “crisis after crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border, a result of Congress’ failure to adequately address border security issues and overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

Kelly and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have introduced a bill aimed at improving the federal government’s response to migrant surges at the border. That bill has not advanced. Kelly said Congress must “take the politics” out of the crisis, no matter which party is in control. 

Early in his speech, Kelly shared a story of a family struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, which has knocked millions of Americans off their feet as they have relied on federal stimulus checks and other pandemic-related programs to keep their families afloat. 

"For so many Arizonans, the relief we got passed was a lifeline … the difference between bankruptcy and keeping the lights on, between losing their small business, and being able to keep paying their employees," he said. 

He noted his work on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package making its way through the Senate. The package is the culmination of months of work co-spearheaded by Arizona’s senior Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, and shaped by Kelly and nearly two dozen other senators on both sides of the aisle.

If signed into law, the legislation would deliver billions of dollars to upgrade Arizona roads, renew bridges, improve tribal water infrastructure and expand high-speed internet access in rural areas of the state. 

“School buses on the Navajo Nation cost three times as much to maintain because so many of the roads are unpaved,” he said. “I-10, which runs through the center of our state between Phoenix and Tucson, has not been expanded in years. A single accident can cause delays for hours. That happens nearly every day. It’s clear that Arizona will benefit from upgrading and modernizing our infrastructure.”

The first-term senator used his speech to call attention to his work on the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which would, in part, bolster the domestic chipmaking industry and counter massive incentives given to foreign rivals by their governments. Arizona, among the nation’s top chipmaking states, stands to benefit if Congress appropriates more money to chipmaking manufacturing and development. 

“I made it my mission to get this passed through the Senate,” he said. “Because it’s important. It’s important to our economy. And it’s important to our national security – ensuring that our supply chain for something so critical does not depend on an adversary like China. Transformational investments such as this will create thousands of high-paying jobs.”

The legislation passed the divided 50-50 Senate chamber with Republicans and Democrats working together, he noted. 

Innovation:Arizona could see billions of dollars from federal legislation for domestic semiconductor industry

Kelly, who has spent time in Arizona meeting with community college students and high-tech training facilities, said the state should be rebuilding and reinventing its economy to meet the demands of a changing workforce. 

“That’s how we’ll prepare hard-working young students to get good-paying jobs,” he said. “It is also how we will out-compete and out-innovate other countries like China. Having a talented workforce that can fill the jobs of the future and develop cutting-edge technologies is critical not just to our economy, but to our national security as well.” 

Several senators were in the chamber for Kelly’s speech, including Sinema, Nevada Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto, Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

Kelly, who ousted Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and won the special election in November 2020 to fill the remainder of McCain’s term, is seeking reelection for a full term in 2022. 

Four high-profile Republicans are seeking to unseat him in a race that could help decide control of the Senate.

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