WASHINGTON – In a speech capping her 34-year congressional career, Sen. Olympia Snowe called representing Maine “the greatest privilege of my life” but expressed concern that the Senate is “losing the art of legislating” because of partisan gridlock.

Snowe urged her Senate colleagues Thursday to follow the authors of the U.S. Constitution by returning to “governing through consensus,” even as she vowed to work to change Congress from the outside.

“I’m not leaving the Senate because I’ve ceased believing in its potential or I no longer love the institution, but precisely because I do,” Snowe said as her staff and her husband, former Maine Gov. John McKernan, watched from the Senate floor or the gallery. “I’m simply taking my commitment to the Senate in a different direction.”

The speech of about 37 minutes was, in many ways, reflective of Snowe’s career representing Maine in Congress.

She talked about the bipartisanship of years past and repeatedly invoked the Founding Fathers and past Maine senators such as Margaret Chase Smith and George Mitchell.

Yet her speech was laced with the frustration that Snowe said prompted her to drop her re-election bid in February, despite her strong popularity among Maine voters.

In addition to writing a memoir, Snowe has launched a leadership institute for young women and a political action committee that she says will help lawmakers who are committed to consensus-building.

“Throughout my tenure, I’ve borne witness to government’s incredible potential as an instrument for that common good,” Snowe said. “I have also experienced its capacity for serial dysfunction. Indeed … it is regrettable that excessive political polarization in Washington today is preventing us from tackling our problems in this period of monumental consequence for our nation.”

Snowe’s decision to retire shocked the political establishment and opened the door for the election of independent Angus King to what had been considered a safe Republican seat.

It also marked the end of the tenure of the third-longest-serving female member of Congress.

In 1978, when she was 31, Snowe became the youngest Republican to join the U.S. House. With her election to the Senate in 1994, she became the first woman to serve in both chambers of her state legislature and Congress.

Three people who have known Snowe for much of that time — McKernan and personal friends Sharon and Dr. Daniel Miller of Cumberland — were among the small group who watched Snowe’s floor speech Thursday from above in the Senate gallery.

Sharon Miller ran numerous campaigns for Snowe and McKernan, and Daniel Miller is a former tennis partner of McKernan.

“I thought it was very moving and appropriate for our country,” Daniel Miller said of Snowe’s speech, while she and McKernan posed for pictures in the ornate waiting room next to the Senate chamber. “The call for bipartisanship is very timely.”

Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who recently surpassed Margaret Chase Smith as the longest-serving woman ever in Congress, noted that she and Snowe worked closely together on a host of women’s health issues over the years.

“Her duty-driven approach and her uncommon sense of getting the job done in a way that’s inclusive … has benefited our entire country,” Mikulski said.

Snowe was the latest senator to deliver farewell remarks — if not her final floor speech — in a week when little official business is getting done on the House or Senate floor.

Congressional leaders have been negotiating with the White House to avert the so-called fiscal cliff by Dec. 31, but progress on a compromise has been slow.

Snowe urged her colleagues to work together to find an alternative to the tax increases and deep spending cuts that economists fear could push the economy back into recession.

“For the sake of the country, we must demonstrate to the American people that we are, in fact, capable of making the big decisions by putting in place an agreement and a framework to avoid the fiscal cliff before we adjourn this year,” Snowe said.

She called on the next Senate to proceed cautiously with Democratic-led plans to change the filibuster, the rule that requires a minimum of 60 votes to proceed.

Snowe offered a long list of major or politically divisive issues — including Medicare, Social Security and the Civil Rights Act — that were resolved through bipartisanship and cooperation.

But she seemed to agree with a recent study that said the Senate is more polarized now than at any time since immediately after the Civil War. “I worry we are losing the art of legislating,” she said.

“So as I depart the Senate that I love, I urge all of my colleagues to follow the Founding Fathers’ blueprint, in order to return the institution to its highest calling of governing through consensus,” Snowe said.

McKernan served two terms in the U.S. House alongside his future wife before being elected twice as Maine’s governor.

Standing outside the Senate chamber after her speech, he said Snowe characteristically spent considerable time writing it.

“It’s a message that’s so important,” he said, “and one that she can deliver better than anyone because she lives it.”

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC