WASHINGTON — In many ways, Thursday encapsulated why the Senate is failing to live up to its aspiration to be the world's "greatest deliberative body" and why Maine Republican Olympia Snowe is bailing out of the institution in the prime of her career.
Capping three weeks of dysfunctional, sporadic debate on a massive highway bill, the Senate finally voted on an amendment to the measure — except that the vote had nothing to do with highway jobs and everything to do with election-year politics.
Snowe, a moderate, was the only Republican to join with Democrats on a politically freighted vote that affirmed an Obama administration directive that requires employers to provide contraception coverage to their workers regardless of religious or ethical concerns.
After casting their first votes since Monday, most senators then immediately bolted the Capitol. It was lunchtime.
The highway bill continues to twist in the wind, trapped in a divisive, polarized Senate that rarely seems to legislate and often seems incapable of tackling politically challenging problems.
So Snowe, 65, is leaving at the end of the year, voicing frustration that the Senate is simply too polarized and that she doesn't know whether she could be "productive" in a fourth Senate term.
"It's a reflection of the political dynamic in America, where we don't look at America as a whole. We look at it through the red and blue prism," Snowe said in an interview. "And so it becomes more divisive and I think ultimately has manifested itself in the Senate and an overall process that lends itself to dysfunction and political paralysis that doesn't allow problems to be solved."
Snowe's departure continues a steady exodus of the chamber's moderates. Centrists like Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., are also leaving, following on the heels of the recent departures of Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
"People in the center are increasingly vilified by the far left and the far right," said Susan Collins, Snowe's home-state GOP colleague. "We used to be applauded for bringing people together to solve problems. Now we tend to be criticized by both sides."
Snowe is leaving even though she would have been poised to take the helm of the powerful Commerce Committee if Republicans take back control of the chamber. She also serves on the Finance Committee, which has sweeping jurisdiction over health care, taxes and trade.
There's little real legislating going on in the Senate these days, however, as the chamber lurches from one politically staged vote to another.
The chamber hasn't debated a budget since 2009. Annual spending bills are passed in huge omnibus measures with little debate, much less amendment.
"There's a rank and file rebellion brewing here," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "Most people who come to the Senate work hard to get here and have done things in their lives of accomplishment. And I think a lot of us are getting tired of sitting around looking at each other."
"This body is supposed to be a great deliberative body. It's supposed to do what's right for the nation," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "If everything here is political, it it's to score points rather than solve problems, then what good is the United States Senate?"
Republicans say Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is too quick to employ parliamentary maneuvers — used frequently by leaders in both parties — to block Republicans from offering and getting votes on their ideas. And they charge that Reid, when he does schedule votes, is more interested in painting Republicans into a political corner, as he did during last fall's debate on extending a 2 percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax and on a tax surcharge on millionaires pressed by Democratic leaders.
Democrats, who control the Senate with 53 votes, counter that Republicans require Democrats to produce 60 votes for virtually everything and deny Reid approval for parliamentary steps that were considered routine just a few years ago. A long roster of presidential nominees remain stuck in limbo, blocked by Republicans.
"It's supposed to be deliberative. Instead now the floor is just a wasteland of quorum calls and lurching from one filibuster to another," said the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. "It really, I'm afraid, has damaged the institution."
Relationships are frayed after workweeks that typically begin late on Monday and end by Thursday afternoon — so there's a lot less bipartisan relationship-building over dinner and drinks.
Since it takes 60 votes to do anything, virtually nothing passes that doesn't have the approval of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. What that often means is that much of the real legislating is done by a handful of top leaders and committee chairmen, leaving most senators out in the cold.
After a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, GOP leaders emerged optimistic that the House and Senate would work together more productively on bipartisan jobs and energy legislation.
"I hope that the majority leader, who's responsible ... for deciding what bills we will turn to, will turn to bills that can actually pass and be signed into law," McConnell said of Reid. And both McConnell and Reid promise to revive the moribund appropriations process and try to pass the 12 Cabinet agency spending bills as separate measures instead of in an omnibus bundle.
Snowe sounds unconvinced.
"Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term," Snowe said in a statement announcing her retirement.