Republican Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas announced plans Monday to retire at the end of her third term, a departure that will cost the Senate one of its most effective champions of civility and bipartisan cooperation.
Kassebaum, the daughter of GOP presidential candidate Alf Landon and the first woman to chair a major Senate committee, joins a growing exodus of moderate Republicans and Democrats from Congress--potentially heightening the ideological fervor and ferocity of the fight for power in Washington.
"In a time of increasing polarization in Congress, she combined outstanding ability and dedication to public service with a graciousness and civility that won her the enduring respect and affection of Democrats and Republicans alike," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said of his longtime colleague on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
While other departing members have used their exits to blast the state of modern politics, Kassebaum said only that at 63, she believes it is time to retire. "The time has come," she said, for her to leave and to pursue other challenges, including being a grandmother.
"Politics has never been a revered profession in America. We all like to joke about or sneer at Congress, and all too often there is good cause for that," Kassebaum said in announcing her decision not to seek a fourth term next year at a press conference in Topeka, Kan. "But politics is nothing more or less than the working out of our competing interests and priorities as a nation. Politics is in fact the lifeblood of democracy, not a spectator sport."
Kassebaum is the 10th senator to announce intentions to retire; only one other, Sen. Hank Brown of Colorado, is a Republican. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, another moderate Republican, is expected to announce his plans next month. Moderates from both parties have been retiring at a higher rate than the more ideological members. They have largely been replaced with politicians who are more ideologically extreme. Democrats have not held a Senate seat from Kansas since 1932.
In Kassebaum's crowning achievement as chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, she won wide bipartisan support this year for a measure to overhaul the nation's job-training programs. The plan combined funding for 80 of the federal programs into lump-sum block grants to be used by the states to create training programs that meet local needs.
While most of the pieces of the Republican revolution that have moved through Congress this year have set Republicans against Democrats in intense partisan warfare, her measure passed, 95 to 2.
"Kassebaum's departure is one large chunk out of the foundations of civility in the Senate," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
"The Senate becomes a different kind of body [with her departure]. There's less room for deliberation and honest debate. It becomes more like the House. If you have the votes, you cram it down someone's throat."
Soft-spoken and pragmatic, Kassebaum largely has employed her considerable skills as a moderator and facilitator behind the scenes, and her role in legislative battles has rarely commanded headlines.
Her centrist positions have not always won her favor with her fellow Republicans.
She was the target of criticism by GOP conservatives for her handling of the surgeon general nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., who was assailed for having performed abortions. She opposed his nomination in her committee, but in the full Senate, she voted for cloture, which would have brought his nomination to a vote. No final vote was ever held because there were not enough votes for cloture.
Last year, she was one of only six Republicans to join Democrats in voting for the Clinton Administration's anti-crime bill--and used her influence to bring other Republicans with her. She defied President Ronald Reagan in 1986 by joining Democrats to override his veto of a measure calling for sanctions against the government of South Africa.
But her voting record over 17 years in the Senate lands her solidly in the Republican camp.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, in a short speech Monday on the floor of the Senate, praised Kassebaum for her "intelligence, integrity and independence," and added that "she will always be remembered as one of the true giants in Kansas political history."