PORTLAND, Maine — While Congress has been engaging in political brinkmanship over the so-called "fiscal cliff," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe has been busy cleaning out her office.
In her desk she has found a career's worth of proof that Republicans and Democrats can come together to reach consensus. Many recently elected senators, she said, don't know anything but corrosive partisanship; they don't know how to work together.
"There are no easy solutions, but that doesn't mean that we lack the ability to develop a resolution to these questions. We have the ability if we choose to do so," she said.
The Maine Republican was known for working to build consensus during her 34 years in the U.S. House and in the Senate. She also was a fierce advocate for Maine, whether battling for New England fishermen and Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works or fighting to save the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.
Paul O'Connor, a union leader at the Kittery shipyard, remembers Mrs. Snowe as an empathetic leader, a good listener and a ferocious advocate. She once called out a geographically challenged Navy secretary who wanted to close "Portland Naval Shipyard" for failing to get his facts straight.
"That whole fiery side of her — I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh. I'm glad she's my friend!'" Mr. O'Connor said Monday, recalling the 2005 episode. "She was amazing."
Mrs. Snowe's unwillingness to back down from a fight made it all the more surprising when she abruptly announced in late February that she was abandoning her re-election bid in the face of a partisan stalemate that had left her marginalized within her own party.
She said she would have stayed if she had seen a way to make it work.
Instead, she said she thinks she can make a bigger difference from the outside, speaking publicly about the need for centrists to step up, using her political action committee to fund candidates who are willing to cross the aisle, and writing a book that lays out her view of the problems in Congress.
Independent Sen.-elect Angus King, who won the race to succeed Mrs. Snowe, understands the current dysfunction "and the role he can play to reverse the tide of ideological absolutes," she said.
In her farewell address to colleagues, she warned again that the Senate has evolved into something akin to a parliamentary system in which members vote in party blocs, promoting partisanship and gridlock.
She told the Associated Press the political parties are largely to blame.
"Campaigns have become campaigns of destruction. It revolves around destroying the other side. That spills over into the legislative process, where they're jockeying for position for the next election, jeopardizing the process," she said.
"It's become all political, and we've jettisoned the good-government part of our jobs," she added.