Friday, March 2, 2012

Olympia Snowe flees the 'parallel universe’

Sen. Olympia Jean Snowe of Maine, a three-term member of the Senate, a member of the House for 16 years and one of the Republican Party’s last exponents of the force of passion alloyed with pragmatism, has finally had enough. The reliable Senate moderate announced on Tuesday that she won’t seek another term as senator, stymied like the rest of us at the bullheadedness and intransigence of the institution she’s been a part of since 1995, and the breakdown of the bipartisanship and compromise built into that institution from its inception.

Snowe, who turned 65 on Feb. 21, was recently presented with another case of the devil and the deep blue sea: wrestling with a vote for her convictions and a vote for her allegiances. The New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman reported Wednesday of how her pending vote on the Blunt amendment, conveying unto employers the powers of doctors (and more about which in a post to come), put her “in a tough but familiar position: weighing her own views as a Republican centrist against pressure from fellow Republicans to support the party position.”

The vote, pending on Wednesday, took place on Thursday, when Snowe was the lone Republican holdout against a party-line vote. The amendment was defeated in the Senate, handing to Snowe what’s likely to be one of her last stands against the paralysis of Congress, a body whose approval ratings by the American public haven’t been lower than they are right now.

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Snowe, never exactly the hog for the media spotlight, was in valedictory mode after her announcement, with interviews that put the situation into a perspective that traded partisanship for practicality, and showed why her departure at the end of her term is lamentable for the Republicans, and, given the wider gravity of her concerns, disastrous for the country.

“Everybody’s got to rethink how we approach legislating and governance in the United States Senate,” she said in a Wednesday interview with The Times, dismayed at the way “we’ve miniaturized the process in the United States Senate.”

In an interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Snowe went into great length as to her reasons for leaving the Senate, and how it’s apparently no place for anyone with moderate tendencies.

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“I decided during the recess — having a milestone birthday, I guess, gets you to focus and be clarifying — about whether or not I was prepared to commit to another six years in the United States Senate,” Snowe told Mitchell on Wednesday. Her decision was made “particularly in the context of the times that are in in the Senate, where it’s very, very difficult to resolve major issues that are important to the future of this country.”

Once out of office, she said, she would “pursue other opportunities outside the Senate so perhaps I can give voice to the frustrations that exist with the political system here in Washington, where it’s dysfunctional and political paralysis has overtaken the environment, to the detriment of the good of this country.”

“. . . [W]hat is the essence of public service? It’s all about solving problems. What are our obligations to the country and to the people we represent? It’s coming up with effective solutions, sitting down and working out these issues, sitting around a table and sorting through the differences . . .”

“The United States Senate is predicated and based on consensus-building. That was certainly the vision of our Founding Fathers. If we abandon that approach, we do it at the expense of the country and the issues we need to address to put us back on track.

“We’re not working on issues anymore. We’re working in a parallel universe.”

Weisman, in The Times, offered a dispiriting roll call of others who’re also leaving the Senate, or who've already left the building.

“Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the senator often considered the most conservative Democrat, and Ms. Snowe, seen as the most liberal Republican, will both be gone next year, as will Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who left a Democratic Party that would not tolerate his pro-Iraq war stand. They follow a parade of centrists out the Senate doors in recent years, including the Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh; a Republican-turned-Democrat, Arlen Specter; and two Republicans-turned-independents, James M. Jeffords and Mr. Chafee.”

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Snowe had her blind spots and inconsistencies, one of them nothing less than the kind of dismantling of principles she laments by way of her pending departure.

Think Progress reported Wednesday of her refusal, in 2010, to publicly support a bill addressing climate-change issues despite having co-chaired the 2005 International Climate Change Taskforce, a group that concluded “[p]reventing dangerous climate change . . . must be seen as a precondition for prosperity and a public good, like national security and public health.”

But Snowe could also soundly buck the orthodoxies of her party., a Web site that monitors abortion news and issues from an anti-choice perspective, found that “[i]n 59 scored pro-life votes by the National Right to Life Committee, Snowe voted pro-abortion 46 times. Some of her worst offenses include voting against the ban on partial-birth abortion, against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, against the Mexico City Policy, in favor of federal funding of Planned Parenthood and in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.”

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Whether one agrees with Snowe on this national issue or that one, it’s the absence of this proven willingness to step away from the reflexes of party politics, this ability to stand on principle as much as on the inevitable expediencies of Capitol Hill, this temperamental inclination to having an open mind that will leave a vacuum on the Senate floor, regardless of who replaces her representing the state of Maine.

We can debate the political impact for days and days. Two hundred and forty-nine of those will elapse between now and Nov. 6, Election Day, an obviously pivotal one for the future of the country, with all the import that a presidential election conveys.

Another pivotal moment for the country, and the prospects for its legislative future, shows up 59 days later, when Olympia Snowe’s term finally ends.

“When you’re looking at the impact of all this,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, told The Times, ”it should be of great concern to the United States of America.”

Image credits: Snowe top: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press. Snowe lower: U.S. Senate photograph.

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