As Voinovich leaves Senate, he sees a deficit of good sense

By Dana Milbank
Monday, December 6, 2010; 8:00 PM

George Voinovich, retiring from the Senate this month, is leaving behind an elegant legislative proposal for the Congress in which he served for a dozen years.

"I think we have to blow up the place," says the Ohio Republican.

Voinovich isn't a violent man. To the contrary, one of his finest moments in Washington was when he broke with his party and tearfully announced his opposition to John Bolton, whom George W. Bush had nominated to be U.N. ambassador even though Bolton had once proposed blowing up U.N. headquarters.

So when Voinovich talks about blowing up Congress - as he did Monday afternoon at an Aspen Institute luncheon - it packs more firepower.

What has lighted Voinovich's fuse is the legislature's utter inability to do anything about the looming debt crisis. As the lame-duck Congress draws to a close, the only debate is about whether to add $4 trillion to the national debt (as the Republicans' tax-cut plan would do) or only $3 trillion (as the Democrats' plan would do).

"I'm voting against everything," declared Voinovich, one of the last of the old-school deficit hawks.

The retiring lawmaker had kind words for some of his colleagues, but the 74-year-old does not appear to have second-guessed his decision to retire.

"I'm so glad that I made up my mind two years ago that I wasn't going to run," Voinovich said. "I've been able to be a senator for two years."

That's because he was freed from the fundraising and campaigning that consume senators' lives - 20 to 25 percent of their time, he estimates.

In historical terms, Voinovich's lifetime rating of 70 percent from the American Conservative Union puts him in the solid mainstream of conservatism. By standards of today's Senate, that makes him a liberal. From the perspective of Voinovich, a pragmatist who defied his party when conscience required, too many of his Senate colleagues care only about settling political scores.

Asked to explain the polarization of the Senate, Voinovich, a former Ohio governor and Cleveland mayor, didn't hesitate. "Too many House members," he said. Audience members laughed, but the senator wasn't joking. "There's a lot of partisanship over there. Then they come over to the Senate and they carry their bad habits with them," he explained. "Some of them, they still remember battles from 10 years ago. It's like they're keeping score. . . . What the hell? You're in the United States Senate."

It was eminently reasonable, if not eloquent. And that's what Voinovich has been: a workhorse of a legislator who gets fired up talking about public-private partnerships and total quality management and reforming Section 5 of the Civil Service Act. His thoughts at his farewell luncheon, attended by many prominent figures in the Washington establishment (William Webster, Jimmy Carter's FBI director, sat alongside William Coleman, Gerald Ford's transportation secretary), wandered from the Balkans to Lake Erie.

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