PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — While Congress has been engaging in political brinksmanship over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” Sen. Olympia Snowe has been busy cleaning out her office.
In her desk she has found a career’s worth of proof that Republicans and Democrats can come together to reach consensus. Many recently elected senators, she said, don’t know anything but corrosive partisanship. They don’t know how to work together, she said.
“There are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean that we lack the ability to develop a resolution to these questions. We have the ability if we choose to do so,” she said.
The Maine Republican was known for working to build consensus during her 34 years in the U.S. House and in the Senate. She also was a fierce advocate for Maine, whether battling for New England fisherman and Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works or fighting to save the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.
Paul O’Connor, a union leader at the Kittery shipyard, remembers Snowe as an empathetic leader, a good listener and a ferocious advocate. She once called out a geographically challenged Navy secretary who wanted to close “Portland Naval Shipyard” for failing to get his facts straight.
“That whole fiery side of her — I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m glad she’s my friend!'” O’Connor said Monday, recalling the 2005 episode. “She was amazing.”
Snowe’s unwillingness to back down from a fight made it all the more surprising when she abruptly announced in late February that she was abandoning her re-election bid in the face of a partisan stalemate that had left her marginalized within her own party.
She said she would have stayed if she saw a way to make it work.
Instead, she said she thinks she can make a bigger difference from the outside, speaking publicly about the need for centrists to step up, using her political action committee to fund candidates who are willing to cross the aisle, and writing a book that lays out her view of the problems in Congress.
Independent Sen.-elect Angus King, who won the race to succeed Snowe, understands the current dysfunction “and the role he can play to reverse the tide of ideological absolutes,” she said.
In her farewell address to colleagues, she warned again that the Senate has evolved into something akin to a parliamentary system in which members vote in party blocs, promoting partisanship and gridlock.
She told The Associated Press that the political parties are largely to blame.
“Campaigns have become campaigns of destruction. It revolves around destroying the other side. That spills over into the legislative process where they’re jockeying for position for the next election, jeopardizing the process,” she said.
“It’s become all political and we’ve jettisoned the good government part of our jobs,” she added.
She doesn’t mince words about her own party. She said the GOP has moved too far to the right and focused too much on social issues like abortion instead of fiscal problems. “Horrific statements” about rape, pregnancy and abortion during the last election served to alienate women, she said.
“The party is going to have to repair that image, among other things, if they’re going to appeal to women in the future and also Hispanics and other minority populations,” she said.
Many of Snowe’s political successes involved reaching across the aisle.
In the House, she was co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, fighting to create an office of women’s health and to end discrimination in clinical trials that at the time failed to include women or minorities. She testified with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill for heating aid for low-income Americans.
In the Senate, Snowe was part of the “Gang of 14” that helped resolve threatened filibuster over President George. W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
She worked with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia to help get schools wired for the Internet. She worked with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts on a law prohibiting insurers for denying coverage or charging higher premiums for people based on a genetic predisposition to disease.
But her moderate views earned her a nickname as RINO, “Republican In Name Only.”
Some Republicans never forgave her for providing the lone GOP vote on the Finance Committee to send President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill to the Senate floor. Snowe ultimately voted against the bill.
“I don’t believe her idea of reaching across the aisle has moved this country in a positive way. We’re on the edge of a really terrible disaster,” said Beth Wallinga, a conservative GOP activist from Old Town.
Snowe, 65, said she has no regrets about leaving the Senate, even as the stalemate over the fiscal cliff underscored her reasons for giving up her congressional career.
“I’m certainly at peace with it,” Snowe said, “but it still saddens me that we’re not rising to the level of leadership that these times command.”
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