January 4, 2009 in Opinion

Senate losing valued players

DAVID S. BRODER
 

When the new Congress begins this week, a great many familiar faces will be missing. While the most notable absentees will be the new president- and vice president-elect, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, something tells me we will see plenty of them in coming months.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ken Salazar, the senators who will soon head the State and Interior departments, will leave big shoes to be filled on Capitol Hill. But equally, the Senate will miss several Republican senators who retired or were defeated last year.

My list starts with my retiring home-state senator, John Warner of Virginia. I got to know him best when I drew the short straw and had to go to Dallas the week before the Republican National Convention opened in 1984 to cover the platform committee meetings. Warner was there to protect the Reagan foreign policy-defense plank and fight off any extremist language that might embarrass the administration.

We were staying at the same hotel and found ourselves meeting for breakfast. I really came to appreciate Warner’s good sense, his candor and humor, and his enjoyment of politics.

Later, I saw those good qualities – and his courage – demonstrated when he led bipartisan groups that saved the Senate from blowing up over the issue of judicial filibusters, and when he took on Oliver North in a major moral test for the Virginia GOP.

Warner was proudest of his work for the men and women of the military.

One of the Vietnam vets who was a colleague of his, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, demonstrated the same kind of courage in politics as he had on the battlefield. Hagel, who did not seek re-election, stood up to enormous White House pressure to conform on Iraq, and I admired the way he would travel the world’s trouble spots to do his own first-hand reporting before giving his views.

I also liked Hagel’s sense of humor. On one visit to his office, which was directly across the hall from that of John McCain, a fellow maverick he much admired, Hagel told me that Senate Republican leader “Trent Lott has machine guns at both ends of the corridor if John and I try to break out.”

Pete Domenici of New Mexico, whose final years before retirement were marred by an unfortunate episode in which he seemed to be pressuring the U.S. attorney in Albuquerque, nonetheless deserves credit for the decades he invested in the struggle to give the Senate a serious budget process – a thankless task if there ever was one. It will be needed more than ever this year.

Among the victims of last year’s Democratic tide were two senators who made notable contributions. Gordon Smith of Oregon turned the suicide of his 21-year-old son, Garrett, into a crusade that persuaded his colleagues to allocate far more funds for bipolar disease and suicide prevention. He also was part of an unusual bipartisan duo with Oregon’s Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. Wyden had defeated Smith in an early contest, but the two developed a partnership that included joint public hearings and town meetings – a rarity in politically mixed delegations.

John Sununu of New Hampshire was admired on both sides of the aisle for his intellect and independence, and for following his conservative principles even when they brought him into conflict with the White House, as they did when he fought successfully to build civil-liberties and privacy protections into the Patriot Act. The youngest senator, his promising career foundered on the increasingly Democratic character of his state.

Among the many departing House members, too numerous to catalogue, I have to mention at least one fellow Virginian, Rep. Tom Davis, a high-spirited moderate Republican who retired last year rather than conform to the prevailing conservative tides in his party. Among other attributes, Davis has an encyclopedic knowledge of the political anatomy of individual congressional districts across the country, unrivaled by anyone I have known since the late Phil Burton, the Democrats’ San Francisco-based human computer.

You have to hope that at least some of these people will find new ways to serve their country.

David S. Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.

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