- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Sen. Pete V. Domenici, who is retiring after 36 years in the Senate, has packed up his office and said goodbye to most of his staffers.

But with only days left in office, it seems the thought of retirement is still unreal to him. “I love the job too much,” Mr. Domenici said. “I feel like I’d like to have the job tomorrow and the next day.”

Mr. Domenici is known for his work on crafting a national energy policy, budget reforms and his support for New Mexico’s national laboratories, military installations and other projects that his earmarks helped create.

As either chairman or top minority member of the Senate Budget Committee for 22 years, Mr. Domenici brought fiscal discipline to the federal budget process. His work culminated in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which brought about budget surpluses from 1998 to 2001.

In a farewell speech to the Senate in September, the 76-year-old Republican fondly recalled his bipartisan work on a major energy bill that passed in 2005 with his fellow New Mexico senator, Democrat Jeff Bingaman, saying it was “the best two years in legislating here that I have had.”

The two were praised at the time for their bipartisan effort to craft the bill, which shaped the nation’s energy policy.

“We did spend a lot of time together, Senator Domenici and I, in the development of that legislation,” Mr. Bingaman said. “There was lots of give and take, but the final result was one that he felt good about and I felt good about.”

Mr. Domenici also sees his legacy in a more intimate way. That’s why he said he’s taking a washboard from his office wall as his own memento.

It was given to him by two elderly Hispanic women, who pointed to their well-lit homes on a New Mexico mountainside after a rural electrical cooperative brought them electricity. They no longer needed the washboard once they had new electric washing machines, so they gave it to the senator to show their gratitude, Mr. Domenici said.

“He kept it because it reminded him of the impact that our actions up here have on the people of New Mexico,” said Mr. Domenici’s longtime chief of staff, Steve Bell. “He wanted to be reminded there’s a real impact on real human beings.”

Mr. Domenici, who worked as an attorney in Albuquerque before entering politics, got his start because his morning coffee buddies goaded him into running for the Albuquerque city commission.

“My friends at coffee had planned and schemed out a way to push me to run for office,” New Mexico’s longest-serving senator said in a recent telephone interview. “They told me ‘You either have to run for public office or quit complaining.’”

Apparently, quitting complaining wasn’t in the cards. Mr. Domenici won his first race and was made commission chairman, the equivalent of mayor, a year later.

Mr. Domenici was first elected to the Senate in 1972, two years after finishing the only campaign he ever lost, the governorship to Bruce King.

During his run for governor, Mr. Domenici said he “was sheltered in that I never went out and met farmers and ranchers and oil and gas operators or people who worked in the patch. I was, without quite knowing it, a city guy.”

That loss taught him he had to have bipartisan support from all over New Mexico.

Mr. Domenici’s plans for retirement are not set, but he said he will divide his time between Washington, where he hopes to study and write about nuclear power with a foundation, and Albuquerque, where he hopes to help people.

Mr. Domenici’s retirement can be much more active than he previously had thought. A degenerative brain disease that he had been diagnosed with has not progressed as doctors had thought it would, and Mr. Domenici said he feels better now than he has in several years.

One of Mr. Domenici’s last tasks before his office closed was meeting with his successor, Democrat Tom Udall.

“It was a good meeting, very friendly,” Mr. Domenici said. “It’s clear that he and others are going to have to work hard for New Mexico. I feel very comfortable with him.”

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