Milbank: One moderate standing amid exodus from U.S. Senate

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoDana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

A few months ago, Sen. Michael Bennet’s staff staged what the Colorado Democrat calls an intervention. He had survived a brutal campaign in 2010 to win his first full term. But after a year of deadlock and partisanship in the Senate, he was wondering whether it had been worth the struggle. “It was right after we managed to end our session with a two-month extension of the payroll tax,” Bennet told me Wednesday. “I got to a point where I was referring to this place as the Land of Flickering Lights, because the standard of success was we kept the lights on for another two months.”

So his aides sat their boss down for a stern talk. “My chief of staff said to me, ‘You know, it’s not OK to hate your job,’” Bennet recalled. “And he’s right. There’s no point in wallowing in self-pity. No one’s going to feel sorry for you.” And so Bennet rededicated himself to his package of reforms none of which has much chance of passing and stopped the kvetching. “I’m back from the brink,” he said.

For now. But with each day on Capitol Hill comes more evidence that the place is broken beyond repair and that the last remaining vestiges of sense and moderation are fleeing. The latest blow came on Tuesday, when Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican and one of her party’s last moderates, said she wouldn’t seek a fourth term because she sees no imminent change in “the partisanship of recent years.” Joining her out the door is much of the remaining core of Senate moderates: Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia. After that kind of exodus, Bennet will be one of the last reasonable legislators still standing.

Accidental politician

Bennet is holding on in hopes that external events will eventually conspire to force action on a major debt agreement along the lines proposed by the Bowles-Simpson commission, but he admits that won’t happen this year. In the meantime, he’s keeping his sanity by focusing on relatively small stuff. Wednesday morning found Bennet at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, pitching his idea for improving education with technology. The $90-million proposal itself is small change, but Bennet spoke with passion about how it could “give us the chance to create the most major advance in K-12 education since colonial America.”

Bennet is an accidental politician: He was Denver schools superintendent before being appointed to fill a Senate vacancy. This makes him exactly the person who should be revising federal education policy. “In view of the fact that there isn’t anything more important than education to drive the U.S. economy, it’s amazing to me how little attention is spent on it,” he told the AEI audience.

On the campaign trail this year, the talk has been about birth control and theology and Rick Santorum’s view that President Obama is a “snob” for wanting Americans to go to college. Bennet, who uses phrases such as “fatigue with longitudinal data,” has what he calls a “snobby” rejoinder to that way of thinking: During the recession, the unemployment rate for people with a college degree never exceeded 5 percent.

When he’s not getting wonky with education scholars, he’s been working on reducing the use of the filibuster in the Senate, imposing a lifetime ban on members of Congress from lobbying, and requiring more campaign finance disclosure. Prospects for the three range from unlikely to doomed, but the 47-year-old lawmaker continues to tinker: with EPA reforms, wind power incentives and “teacher residency” programs.

So far this year, his despair hasn’t returned. “You’ve got to get up every morning and just try to figure out how to make a contribution,” he said. “At some point we’ll have to respond to our constituents’ desire that we knock it off. At some point we’ll head in that direction, but Washington seems to have an antibody in it right now that is fighting this at every turn.” Let’s hope that changes before the last few Michael Bennets go the way of Olympia Snowe.