After nearly 40 years in politics, Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snow is calling it quits. Her announcement on Tuesday that she was retiring after for more than three decades in Congress out of sheer frustration with the relentless, grinding partisanship on Capitol Hill was another sobering reminder that Congress has been rendered a political no-man’s land where compromise between the two armed camps is a rare exception.
Snowe, 65, entered politics at age 26 when she ran for and won the Maine legislative seat of her husband, who had died in a car crash in 1973. In 1978, when Rep. William Cohen ran for the Senate, she made a bid for his U.S. House seat and won. Sixteen year later, she succeeded Democrat George Mitchell in the Senate.
In the Senate, Snowe cast pivotal votes when the chamber was closely divided, frequently siding with Democrats on cultural issues (she supported abortion rights) and on some economic controversies. When she arrived in the Senate in 1995, she was part of a bipartisan group that regularly devised its own budget and health care proposals. Then in 2005, she joined the “Gang of 14,” a largely moderate group of Democrats and Republicans who defied their party leaders and forced a compromise rules in the Senate.
Snowe teamed up with then Democratic senator James Jeffords of Vermont in 2002 to push through an important campaign finance reform amendment that prevented corporations and unions from funding campaign ads targeting specific candidates close to an election. The measure curtailed big campaign spending until it was blown out of the water by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010.
In early 2009, Snowe teamed up with Collins and then- Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to negotiate a scaled back, $800 billion stimulus package with the Obama administration that infuriated conservatives. Specter later switched parties and Snowe came under growing Tea Party criticism back home that was making life miserable.
Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and a friend of Snowe’s thought she might leave the GOP and become an independent. He said, “She was increasingly caught up in the tribal warfare that exits on Capitol Hill, and forced by GOP party leaders “to vote in ways that just didn’t fit her.”
She was obliged to go along with the Republicans in blocking many of Obama’s nominations. And in September 2010, she voted with her party to kill a campaign finance reform measure that she believed in, according to Ornstein.
That’s when the Senate defeated a motion for a second time to end a Republican filibuster and allow a vote on the DISCLOSE Act, which would have placed stringent limits on the ability of grassroots groups to communicate to the public about legislation and elections. Senate Republicans filibustered the bill and Democrats held a cloture vote in July needing 60 votes to end the filibuster and move towards a vote on the bill.
However, Democrats were unable to peel off any Republicans – including Snowe -- to support the cloture vote, and they lost by a 57 to 41 margin. “She voted with her party in a whole host of areas that probably made her cringe,” Ornstein said.
Snowe’s announcement yesterday reportedly caught Republican leaders by surprise. She informed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas. Without revealing her plans for the future, Snowe told MSNBC today, “This is a new chapter in my life, and I decided that if I was going to do something different, it had to be at this moment in time.
“So I’m going to be giving my voice to what should change here in the United States Senate and in Congress to get things done for the American people,” she said. “I have traveled the country and talked to thousands of people and have given many speeches, and I have to tell you, including in my state of Maine, people are deeply frustrated. They are facing personal financial pains and hardship, but more about the fact that we are not getting things done here in Congress.”