Too partisan to be productive?

By Walt Braun

Republicans in the U.S. Senate might not miss Olympia Snowe much when she retires from the upper chamber at the conclusion of her present — her third — term.

She hasn’t been as Republican as partisans would have liked. She’s a moderate, a pro-choice centrist, who hasn’t been afraid to join Democrats when she thought they were right. For example, she supported President Barack Obama’s compromise on contraception coverage by employers associated with religious organizations.

Sen. Snowe isn’t stepping away because of that issue or because she worries about her re-election prospects. She’s overwhelmingly popular in Maine, winning almost three-fourths of the vote in her last election. Mostly, she said, she’s leaving because she’s tired of the hyperpartisanship that has come to shape just about every issue lawmakers consider.

“I do find it frustrating that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and our governing institutions,” she said.

Evidence of such polarization is ample among both Republicans and Democrats. It’s hard to find a more conspicuous example in her own party than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement of about a year ago on his party’s aspirations: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” It spoke volumes that he chose that goal over economic recovery, balancing the budget, defeating terrorism or reforming entitlements.

Sen. Snowe has simply had enough of the bitterness and the damage it does to efforts to actually get things done. “I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term,” she said.

She’ll be missed by at least one other Republican, fellow centrist and Maine Sen. Susan Collins. Said Sen. Collins: “People in the center are increasingly vilified by the far left and the far left. We used to be applauded for bringing people together to solve problems. Now we tend to be criticized by both sides.”

Sen. Snowe isn’t the only senator to announce plans to step down. Unlike the others, however, she focused on the polarization that diminishes the Senate’s productivity and even its ability to conduct serious debates. The Senate might become louder and more strident as a result of her absence and that of other moderates, but it won’t likely become more deliberative unless more senators are willing to put the nation’s interests ahead of their respective parties.

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