Albert R. Hunt
Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg
Albert R. Hunt Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg

Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, a certainty to win her fourth term in November, stunned the U.S. political world last month by announcing that she was retiring.

Some of her fellow Republicans, who only days earlier had groused that she was unreliable -- a centerpiece of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s re-election campaign was the warning that his defeat could mean Snowe would become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee -- lamented the loss and what it said about American politics. Similar sentiments came from Democrats, from the White House to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, some of whom had dismissed her for failing to stand up to her party.

This is why the three-term senator, who also served 16 years in the U.S. House and six years in the Maine legislature, bowed out; the “sensible center,” she said, is disappearing from American politics and the Senate is dysfunctional.

Last week, in her ground-level office in the Russell Senate Office Building, she chatted for 40 minutes about changes and the loss of comity in the body politic.

“There’s no longer political reward for consensus building,” says the 65-year-old, one of the last of a dying breed of middle-of-the-road Republicans who worked with Democrats.

She parcels out bipartisan blame. For President Barack Obama, who came into office vowing to end Washington’s toxic partisanship, “everything went awry from the outset.”

Stimulus Vote

During deliberations on the initial fiscal stimulus measure, she met with the president and counseled him to follow Ronald Reagan’s model of working across the political lines in Congress. He didn’t or couldn’t. The legislation passed Congress with the support of only three Republicans, including Snowe.

On deficit reduction, she laments that Obama appointed the Bowles-Simpson commission and then walked away from its recommendations. “The president should have at least put it out there,” she says.

Likewise, she notes that Republicans did little about chronic deficits when in control of Congress. She recalls with dismay the party’s leading presidential contenders declaring at a debate last August that they would oppose any deal that cut $10 of spending if it also contained $1 in tax increases.

The health-care measure exemplified the political pettiness and paralysis in Washington. The Finance Committee, on which she serves, was working on a bill as Congress adjourned in August 2009. During that recess, Tea Party conservatives and some Republicans ginned up the threat of “death panels,” a canard that Snowe says “ignited a firestorm politically” and made bipartisan deals almost impossible.

A few months later, Democratic Senate leaders forced a huge bill onto the floor with no explanation of some provisions. The measure passed, the country remains divided and the issue will be settled in June by a politically split Supreme Court.

Her own party “has moved too far right” on fiscal and social issues. The recent battle over access to birth control, she fears, is reviving the sense that Republicans are waging a war against women. In the 1980s, she led a group of female Republican lawmakers to meet with Reagan on an agenda to address similar concerns.

“The reigniting of this whole debate is perilous for the Republican Party,” she says. “To focus on social issues to the exclusion of other issues puts us in a politically delicate position that could alienate women.”

Disappearing Bipartisanship

It’s the dysfunctional Senate that bothers her most. Too often, legislation isn’t carefully considered and regular order is ignored. She cites the passage of the 1985-86 tax reform act as a model of the way things should work. The debate was protracted, “contentious and controversial.” In the end, a major bill was passed on a bipartisan basis with the White House and Congress working together. “Now we don’t do anything in a systematic way,” she says.

One reason is abuse of the filibuster rule that requires 60 of the 100 senators -- rather than a simple majority -- to support cutting off debate before taking a vote. This maneuver used to be reserved for urgent national issues; the 91st Congress, which ended in 1970, debated civil rights, the Vietnam War and the controversial presidency of Richard Nixon; yet there were just six votes to break filibusters. In the last Congress, there were 91.

Snowe is skeptical this will change: “To what? A lower number? I just wonder if that’s addressing the symptom and not the underlying problem.”

Given all these problems, one might think an independent or third-party movement would appeal to Snowe. In the 1992 presidential election, her congressional district gave Ross Perot 33 percent of the vote, his highest tally anywhere and more than President George H.W. Bush. Over the past four decades, Maine has elected two independents as governor; one of those, Angus King, is now a favorite to take Snowe’s Senate seat.

After announcing her retirement, Snowe spoke to former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who belongs to a bipartisan group of political figures that is discussing the notion of an independent effort this year that would focus on deficit reduction.

Snowe isn’t sold on the idea. “That would complicate matters,” she says. “I believe in the two-party system. It could work.”

She remembers those who made the chamber work, starting with Edward M. Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat. She was in the minority and had introduced a genetics non-discrimination bill. “Ted graciously deferred to me as the lead sponsor of the bill, even though he chaired the committee.”

Kennedy “understood the legislative dynamics and the interrelationships and the value of the art of legislating,” she says. Too often, these days, that art “has been consumed in the overall environment.”

The other lawmaker she singles out for praise is man who was the Senate leader when she first arrived in that institution, Robert J. Dole of Kansas. “He would put everybody in a room and say, ‘Go work it out.”’

He represented, she believes, the essence of public service: “to develop solutions.”

Could that happen today? She shakes her head: “It’s different. It is a different time.”

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Albert Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.