An era ended Jan. 1 when the U.S. Senate passed a hastily negotiated deal to take the nation off the brink of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that could have sent the economy back into recession.

Voting in the majority was Maine senior Sen. Olympia Snowe, her last vote in a 34-year career as a member of Congress. Characteristically, it was a strong bipartisan vote, just like the strong bipartisan senator who cast it.

History is often invisible to the people who are living it. It’s not until time has passed that we can fully appreciate the significance of events that happened long ago.

But when future histories of Maine are written, there will be a big chapter on the contribution of Sen. Snowe.

Her story sounds like the stuff of legend: an immigrant’s orphaned daughter who ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives made vacant when her husband, Peter Snowe, died in a car crash. She completed that term and three others in the Legislature before running to represent Maine’s 2nd District in Congress.

That was in 1978, and 10 elections later she retires as the undisputed champ of Maine politics.

Her service will be remembered for her strong advocacy for women’s health, senior citizens and small businesses. Snowe and her staff have been tireless fighters for the people of her state, making sure they had heat in their homes and jobs they could count on.

But Snowe will be remembered for more than just a string of election victories and legislative achievements. She has become a national symbol of something that appears to be slipping away — a government that comes together to solve the nation’s problems and doesn’t divide by party on every issue.

Snowe will be remembered as the feisty centrist who stayed true to Republican values of small government and thrift while still being willing to reach across the aisle to make a deal when that was in the people’s interest.

We hope that spirit can survive even after Snowe has moved on.