A Republican retirement community of sorts is slowly forming in the United States Senate. The behavior of its liberated members could have profound implications on Obama's ability to move his agenda through Congress.
With Al Franken seated in the Senate, Democrats will have 59 members -- one short of the 60 needed to cut off debate and move legislation. Senate watchers have focused their attention on moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine or Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
"We're all subject to the considerations of reelection," noted Specter.
Not quite all. Count Republican Sens. Mel Martinez (Fla.), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Sam Brownback (Kansas) out of that equation. All three have announced that they won't be seeking reelection in 2010.
That freedom changes the way that a Senator approaches his job. "I've struggled with that in my own mind as to whether there's going to be any difference," Martinez told the Huffington Post. "I might have a little more independence in terms of -- independence for myself."
Senators are relentlessly pressured by powerful interest groups that can steer campaign cash their way depending on how they vote. No longer concerned about fundraising, a retiring Senator can examine an issue from more of a policy perspective than a political one.
"The biggest difference is, I don't have to plan any fundraisers and I'm not compelled to spend time on that effort," said Martinez. "So that's very liberating in that sense." He guessed that fundraising would have taken between 20 and 30 percent of his energy the next two years had he decided to run again.
Voinovich, at Hillary Clinton's secretary of state confirmation hearing, said that a major reason he decided to retire was so that he could focus on economic recovery rather than reelection. Last Thursday, he bucked his party and voted with Obama to release the second $350 billion in bailout funds.
Voinovich told the Huffington Post that his colleagues, when they notice him deviating from the party line, will chalk it up to the freedom of having retired. "I think there'll be some, 'Well, what the hell. Voinovich isn't running again, so he can do that,'" he said.
Without having to worry about reelection, said Voinovich, he's free to work on big-picture projects without concern for how they'll impact him. "It's exciting, because I'm going to try to make these the best two years that I have here and [I'm] going to be working on legacy projects," he said. "There are big things our country needs to do and I'm hopeful that somewhere along the line I'm going to have something to say about it, and I don't have to worry about raising money."
Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is in charge of corralling his party's votes. Asked if he was worried that the retirees might wander off on their own, he quickly responded, "Nope." He paused and added, "Nope."
Martinez, Brownback and Voinovich have been known to buck his party on occasion, but that urge could become stronger unconstrained by concerns for a future political career. "I generally have tried to pretty much follow my conscience -- and I know that sounds very trite -- but I have not tried to make every vote a political vote," said Martinez. He plans on leaving politics entirely, he said, and spending time on the golf course, hunting, and with his grand kids.
In the meantime, he'll be glad not to have to play the Senate's partisan games. "I have always resented the fact that we do so many message votes, frankly, on either side," he said. Look for that resentment to be voiced by a few votes he might not otherwise have made.
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