Most Senators Leaving Since 1996 May Polarize Chamber

Retirement announcements by Senator Olympia Snowe and other centrists are putting more U.S. Senate seats at stake than at any time since 1996 -- and the result may be an even more polarized environment next year.

Snowe, a three-term Maine Republican known for voting with Democrats on some high-profile issues, said her decision was driven by frustration over partisanship and lack of compromise in the Senate. Other departing senators who seek consensus on such issues as debt reduction say they share her view.

“It’s very difficult to get things accomplished,” said Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who said he will retire after two six-year terms to spend more time with his family. “People back home complain about gridlock, but they send people here who engage in that very thing.”

Ten senators -- seven Democrats and three Republicans --say they won’t face voters again in November, the largest number of elected senators eschewing re-election since 13 decided to forgo new terms in 1996.

“The Senate must not be any fun anymore,” said Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, who served for seven years as a Republican senator and was defeated in 2006.

“Each cycle weeds out more and more moderate Republicans,” said Chafee, now a political independent and a member of President Barack Obama’s re-election committee.

The Senate departures include centrists Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Budget Committee; Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat; Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat; and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Brown at Risk

Other centrists are at risk of losing re-election in November, including Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican who won his seat in a 2010 special election.

“We’re going to have a real competition for Senate seats that promises to be very expensive and very hard fought,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Democrats have controlled the Senate since 2006, with a 53-47 majority this year. Still, Republicans have one advantage: They’re defending just 10 of 33 seats on the November ballot.

Since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the divided Congress has yielded few legislative accomplishments. Partisan battles over spending brought the U.S. to the brink of four government shutdowns and a deficit-reduction debate collapsed in November. This year, Congress extended a payroll tax cut through 2012, though lawmakers in both parties say little else may get done besides bills funding federal agencies.

36 House Members

More of the retiring senators are known for their willingness to work with the other party and to help shape bipartisan accords on issues.

Nelson helped broker President George W. Bush’s income-tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Snowe supported the 2008 bank bailout and Obama’s economic stimulus in 2009. Conrad, like Snowe, participated in bipartisan talks that helped shape the health care overhaul passed in 2010, and was part of the “Gang of Six” senators who pushed unsuccessfully for a bipartisan deal to curb the U.S. debt last year.

In the House, 36 members have announced retirement plans, one fewer than in 2002, the last time states redrew congressional districts following the U.S. Census. Among them are 20 Democrats, making it tougher for the party to gain the 25 seats it would need for majority control, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

‘Huge Factor’

Redistricting is a “huge factor” in this year’s House retirements, Gonzales said. A prime example is David Dreier, a California Republican and chairman of the Rules Committee, who said yesterday he won’t seek a 17th term.

Dreier, 59, “didn’t have a district to run in” because “his district was carved up so many ways he didn’t have any options,” Gonzales said.

House Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts, 70, cited his “very substantially changed” district as the reason he isn’t seeking another term.

House Democrats will lose some leaders of the centrist “Blue Dog” coalition, including Representative Mike Ross of Arkansas and Representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina. The retirement of another coalition member, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, will be a “huge blow” to Democrats, who may lose his seat to Republicans this fall, Gonzales said.

House Exodus

Senate retirements also spurred the exodus from the House. So far, four House Democrats are giving up their seats to try to replace retiring Democratic senators, and creating competitive races for their House seats. Another two House Democrats are challenging Republican senators seeking re-election.

In some cases, the retirements are creating a last-minute crunch for candidates. Snowe dropped out about two weeks before candidates in both parties must file to run. Yesterday, two House Democrats from Maine -- Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud -- began circulating petitions for possible Senate runs.

Also yesterday -- just one day before a filing deadline for the Nebraska Senate seat being vacated by Nelson -- former Democratic Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey said he will seek his party’s nomination and try to regain the post. Republicans have been favored to win the seat.

‘Fill That Role’

Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican in the chamber, said others will rise to replace the dealmakers who are retiring from the chamber.

“There’s a lot of institutional knowledge and memory with people like that, and these are people who have been involved in some of the big debates and big fights, so it’s a loss,” he said. “But it’s always the case that there are some very able people out there who step in and fill that role.”

Still, the Senate has changed markedly in the past six years, with about one-third of the 100 senators replaced in successive elections, said John Ullyot, a one-time aide to former Senator John Warner of Virginia, a Republican.

Many of the newcomers are lawmakers “who have no real connection to the Senate, who are replacing real institutionalists” like Warner or former Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, Ullyot said.

Former Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat who represented Indiana from 1999 to 2011, said lack of bipartisanship was the main reason he decided to retire. Neither party has the 60 votes needed to pass legislation in most cases in the Senate, and that’s unlikely to change after this election, he said.

“The willingness to work with the other party was once viewed as an act of statesmanship,” said Bayh, whose seat was won by Republican Senator Dan Coats. “Now it’s an act of betrayal.”

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