Regardless of the outcome of this national election, Congress is going to look a lot different next year than it has for the past two.

And no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, it’s hard to argue that we couldn’t use some change.

We have just lived through an era of sweeping reform in health care and financial regulation, as well as a historic level of government intervention in a deeply damaged economy.

All of these efforts have been almost exclusively partisan affairs, with Democrats in both houses pushing the agenda. In two of the three — financial regulation and the stimulus bill — there were only three Republican votes in favor, and both times two of the three came from Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine who split with their party and gave the measures the votes needed to put them over the top.

We may not always agree with their votes, but as Mainers, we like to see that they make them. It is the kind of independent action that makes Democratic and independent voters eschew party labels and help return the two senators to office every six years.

As Americans, however, we have to question whether this kind of highly partisan legislative process is healthy for our republic. Pulling a couple of votes from an atypical state is not the same thing as building a national consensus. We need more than just Maine’s senators to build a moderate coalition that can govern.

CHANGE AHEAD

The polls tell us that it will be a bad year for the Democrats. If the polls are right and the president’s party loses one or both houses of Congress, there will certainly be a different dynamic in Washington.

But even if the Republicans take control, or if the Democrats somehow defy the odds and hold on to their majorities, neither party is likely to maintain the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto or the 60 votes in the Senate that we have been shown repeatedly in recent months means the difference between something and nothing happening in Congress.

This divided government could be a recipe for an era of partisanship that will make the last two years look like a garden party.

We are told that this situation could put our senators in the powerful position of being able to work from the center and make deals.

We are optimistic, but frankly, we’ve heard this before. The reality is that while we have had closely divided Senates when moderate swing-voters would seem to be in a position to drive policy, it has rarely happened.

Most senators are not moderate and when they elect leaders, the leadership is also not moderate. And the leaders are the ones who end up setting the course.

So bipartisanship is rare. Swing-vote senators like Snowe, Collins and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson vote with their parties more than two-thirds of the time, which doesn’t mean that their reputation for independence is undeserved.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, who is also often identified as a moderate, caucuses with the Democrats and votes with them more than 90 percent of the time. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is seen as a potential deal-maker on several key issues, votes with his party more than 92 percent of the time.

POISONED ENVIRONMENT

In an environment where partisan leaders, like Majority Leader Harry Reid, put a tight lid on what comes before the Senate, this hewing close to party discipline has a predictable result. Simply changing parties won’t change that much.

What would be the effect of a Congress in which neither side can have its way without the other party’s consent? In the current poisoned environment it sounds like a recipe for inaction, which is not what the country needs.

Maine’s senators have a unique opportunity to shape national policy by virtue of their reputations as problem solvers. That will take more than granting or denying a majority the votes it needs to put a measure over the top.

We hope that they can convince some colleagues from both parties to work together and pass legislation for the good of the whole country.

Maybe not the sweeping reform packages we’ve seen over the last two years, but smaller issues within the arenas of health care, energy and military spending that could have an impact in people’s lives.

Snowe once said that when she first arrived in Congress, it was different. “There used to be a time for politics and a time for governing. If we don’t separate the two, we really forfeit our ability to lead the country.”

She’s right. When this election is over, let’s hope that there are more people who feel that way.