WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of 70 former senators is trying to stage what amounts to an intervention with their counterparts of today, believing the Senate is withering away as an institution that is no longer an equal branch of government.

The group – including 20 who served as Republicans in the Senate – contends that the Senate has lost relevance over the past decade, particularly the past two years when the chamber has shied away from almost any contentious debate in favor of confirming President Trump’s nominees to sub-Cabinet positions and the federal judiciary.

Those signing include two former senators from Maine, William Cohen and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans.

“The Senate – and the proper functioning of our Republic – are simply too important to be allowed to continue on their present course,” the ex-senators wrote in a letter to all 100 senators, published Tuesday as an op-ed in The Washington Post.

Their recommendations for improving the body were left intentionally vague, but the condemnation for the malaise was strong. Without naming their sources, the former senators warned that the quality of senators is in real danger as the current class often complains to its former members that the job is no longer worth it.

“We have been told by sitting members that the diminished state of the Senate has left them doubting if there is any point in continuing to serve, and it has caused potential candidates to question whether the reality of Senate membership is worth the considerable effort and expense of running for office,” the ex-senators wrote.


George Mitchell, a senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995 and the Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995, did not sign the letter. Mitchell said he has been occupied by the demands of transitioning from the full-time practice of law.

“For years I have been asked to sign hundreds of letters and petitions and endorse numerous causes,” Mitchell said in an email Tuesday night. “Currently, I’m taking a break from that practice to devote my full time to this transition.

“The letter to which you refer is one of many that has come up recently and to which I did not respond. My not signing it should not be interpreted as opposition. I just haven’t studied it.”

To keep their letter bipartisan, the group avoided outlining a specific set of grievances, suggesting that both parties have abused the Senate’s somewhat obscure parliamentary rules over the past decade, both in the majority and minority. That allowed former senators to avoid placing too much blame on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who served at least briefly with almost all the Republicans who signed the letter.

One of the signatures came from former majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

The prominent Republicans who signed include Frank Murkowski of Alaska, whose daughter, Republcian Lisa Murkowski, is a current senator; Alan Simpson of Wyoming; Gordon Smith of Oregon; and John Warner of Virginia. Frank Murkowski, Simpson and Warner were all committee chairmen during their tenure.


Smith is still a prominent figure in Washington, having lost his reelection bid in 2008, as the president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Four ex-senators served as the main force behind the effort: John Danforth, R-Mo., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Paul Kirk, D-Mass.

The group’s main complaint is that the Senate no longer holds wide-ranging debate on prominent issues of the day – in 2019, 75 percent of all votes pertained to confirming Trump’s nominees, a dramatic increase from a decade earlier when less than 10 percent of roll calls related to confirmations.

Most votes pertaining to legislation came either on must-pass spending bills designed to keep federal agencies up and running, or on procedural votes that Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans forced to restrict Trump’s powers.

McConnell has proudly claimed that transforming the judiciary to a right-leaning majority will be his legacy in the Senate.

The ex-senators disagreed that should be anyone’s singular goal.


“By design, the Senate is the place where Americans with all their competing interests and ideologies are represented and where champions of those positions attempt to advance their causes and work through their differences.”

But the group could not come around on any profound suggestions for how to make the Senate function better, only offering the idea of an ad hoc bipartisan caucus to serve as an informal body that could try to make the chamber work better.

According to some ex-senators, the bipartisan caucus would serve as a clearinghouse of ideas to pitch to the rest of the Senate for how to empower committees to do more work and get their legislation onto the chamber floor for extended debates.

Some envision that such a bipartisan caucus could act as its own power center to dictate certain things get debated on.

For example, if a caucus of at least seven Republicans and seven Democrats got together and wanted to force a debate on several bipartisan bills from the Senate health committee, they would have enough votes to prevent McConnell from moving forward on nominees or any other legislation.

But that’s an unlikely outcome.


The ex-senators acknowledged that they may sound too nostalgic for the good old days.

“We do not want to give the impression that we served in some golden age when the Senate operated like clockwork and its members embraced one another as one big happy family,” they wrote. “Of course, that was never the case.”


Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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