- Associated Press - Sunday, March 11, 2012

Call ‘em the comeback crew.

Republican Sen. Daniel Coats of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey served years in the Senate, bowed out because of a term-limits promise or the frustration of endless fundraising and then discovered they couldn’t quit the place.

Pleas from party leaders and the opportunity to revise and extend their legacies lured them back. Now in their second acts, at age 68 and 88, respectively, they could be joined by former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, who left Washington in January 2001.

Mr. Kerrey, who was Nebraska’s governor and two-term senator, faces an uphill fight in trying to win the seat that Democrat Ben Nelson is leaving at the end of the year. Nebraska is a strong Republican state - John McCain beat Barack Obama 57 percent to 42 percent in the 2008 presidential race - and outside groups already have labeled Mr. Kerrey a carpetbagger who spent the past decade as an academic in New York City.

The decorated former Navy SEAL remains undeterred about coming back to a fiercely divided Washington.

“Maybe Olympia Snowe is right: You’ve got terminal dysfunction, and there’s nothing that can be done about it,” said Mr. Kerrey, referring to the moderate Maine GOP senator who recently decided against another campaign. “But you tend to be more optimistic about being able to get something done about it when you’re on the outside rather than on the inside.”

Bitter partisanship has stifled plenty of agendas and made Congress an unattractive destination for many, especially with lawmakers held in such low standing. Still, the nation’s growing list of problems, from a trillion-plus deficit to salvaging costly entitlement programs, push politicians back to Washington.

Mr. Coats served from 1989 to 1999, then was ambassador to Germany in President George W. Bush’s administration and a Washington lobbyist. About two years ago, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called him about possible candidates with statewide name recognition to run against Sen. Evan Bayh, then a formidable Democratic incumbent. When Mr. Bayh decided against another bid, Mr. Coats survived a tough GOP primary and then easily won the seat in November 2010.

Mr. Lautenberg left the Senate in January 2001 after 18 years. Then came Sept. 11 and the terrorist attacks.

“I realized I made a mistake. With my experience, I’m not there, the war is starting, the recession’s starting,” Mr. Lautenberg said in an interview. “I missed it terribly. I felt helpless.”

The ethics woes of former New Jersey Sen. Robert G. Torricelli forced him to abandon his bid in 2002. Democrats scrambled for a replacement and ensured that Mr. Lautenberg got on the ballot. He won handily and in the past decade, has fought against privatization of the air-traffic control system and pushed for tighter security at seaports and airports.

All told, 35 senators have served nonconsecutive terms since 1913, an illustrious list that includes Republican Barry Goldwater, who reclaimed a Senate seat from Arizona in 1968, four years after losing a presidential bid, and Minnesota Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey, who resigned in December 1964 to become vice president, ran unsuccessfully for president in 1968 and returned to the Senate in 1971.

Return engagements are hardly easy, and they weren’t exactly smooth for Mr. Coats and Mr. Lautenberg. Mr. Coats faced criticism for not knowing how much he made as a lobbyist and questions about his residency, while Mr. Lautenberg had to answer for the greased path that moved him to the front of the Democratic Party’s nomination process.

Said Mr. Coats: “Your legacy is not going to be what you were before. Your legacy is going to be what you did when you were faced with some really tough choices.”

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