WASHINGTON – Congress is saying farewell to its last two veterans of World War II, the member whose lodgings inspired Amazon’s “Alpha House” show, a founding firebrand of the tea party, one of the shorter-term senators and a few dozen others this week as another session of bickering winds down.
As they end their careers, many lawmakers of various eras are sounding a common note – that they’re leaving the institution in worse shape than they found it.
“We have lost our way,” retiring Sen. Tim Johnson lamented in his parting speech Thursday. The South Dakota Democrat said that over his 28 years in the House and Senate, it became harder and harder to strike bipartisan compromise, as winning elections came to overshadow everything else.
West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller bade farewell to the Senate after three decades with a warning: “As a governing body, we must not allow recent failures to take root.”
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“Politics today is too full of pettiness,” complained Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., who could hardly be blamed for the state of Congress since he only arrived as an appointee in February. Walsh’s bid to win a full term ended in a plagiarism scandal, so he gets less than 11 months in office. That’s not a record: One 1970s senator served only four days.
Republicans, looking forward to expanding their control from the House to the Senate in January, sound more upbeat these days than Democrats. Still, some departing GOP members are echoing the 9 out of 10 Americans who tell pollsters they disapprove of Congress’ handiwork.
Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, quitting after one term, said “confidence in our nation’s ability to solve problems may be shaken” but insisted that “ordinary people can do extraordinary things – even here in Washington, D.C.”
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon teared up as he spoke of reaching the twilight of a two-decade career, but the House Armed Services chairman also berated his colleagues for allowing budget cuts known as “sequestration” that he said are harming the troops.
“There isn’t a magical solution that Republicans can support and the president can sign without sacrifice on both sides,” the California Republican said, adding “shame on all of us” if Congress and the president fail to restore defense spending next year.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll finds Americans feeling pessimistic: Just 13 percent are confident that President Barack Obama and the incoming Republican-led Congress can work together to solve problems.
Rep. George Miller, one of the last of the Democratic “Watergate babies” swept into office after President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, takes a longer view.
He says the overly partisan tone will fade away eventually – perhaps after another election or two – when the voters settle the latest round of arguments over the size and role of government.
“America has to make up its mind,” Miller said in an interview, “so the Congress can make up its mind.”
The California congressman’s career focused on schools, the environment and helping workers, but he made his mark on popular culture in another way. Miller has shared his scruffy home-away-from-home with a revolving cast of lawmaker-housemates since the early 1980s, inspiring the satiric Amazon video series, “Alpha House.” Now that he’s retiring, Miller is selling the house.
Some other notables among the more than 50 lawmakers leaving at session’s end:
LAST OF THE WORLD WAR II ERA
Congress’ last two World War II veterans are in the record books for other reasons, too.
Rep. Ralph Hall is the oldest-ever House member, at age 91. Hall, who lost his Republican primary in May, missed attending his colleagues’ tributes this week because he’s recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident in his home state of Texas.
Rep. John Dingell, 88, has served in Congress longer than anyone in history: 59 years. The Michigan Democrat was elected to Congress in 1955 after his father died in office. The seat will once again stay in the family, because Dingell’s wife, Debbie, won it in November.
Their peers are lauding three 1970s-era Democrats for getting things done by reaching across the aisle.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, retiring chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, clashed with President George W. Bush as an early opponent of the Iraq War. But in a tribute to Levin, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona praised his record of bipartisanship.
“We all listen to him,” McCain said, “and we listen closest to him on the occasions when we disagree with him.”
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. Henry Waxman of California arrived among the “Watergate babies.”
Waxman, a master negotiator once labeled “tougher than a boiled owl” by a colleague, is a staunch liberal known for the Clean Air Act and taking on tobacco companies. Yet he worked closely with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and President Ronald Reagan to pass landmark generic drug legislation.
The struggles of Harkin’s deaf older brother, Frank, inspired his commitment to helping the disabled. Harkin’s work with two Republicans, Sen. Bob Dole and President George H.W. Bush, resulted in the Americans With Disabilities Act.
TEA PARTY DARLING
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, dedicated to championing conservative ideals over compromising, founded the House Tea Party Caucus.
During her four terms in the House, she’s never served in a Congress controlled entirely by the GOP. And now – after making her name through a brief presidential campaign and fights with Democrats and sometimes her own party’s establishment – she’s decided it’s time to move on.
“It’s like the agony and the sublime,” Bachmann said in an interview. “I came in when Republicans lost the gavel and now they have the wind at their backs.”