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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.

The one theme that tied his thoughts together was exasperation with the failure to act on the debt. Voinovich scolded President Obama for failing to endorse his call for a 25-cent-per-gallon gas tax, and he scolded colleagues who "want us to spend as much as possible" on defense.

"I'm afraid that we'll just kick the can down the road," he complained. "We won't see tax reform, we won't see any control of real spending." Voinovich's forecast: "You can't get anything done unless you have a crisis. . . . You've got to have a crisis."

The Ohioan hailed the "patriots" on the debt commission who voted in favor of the package of spending cuts and tax increases proposed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. And he recalled how he opposed his Republican colleagues who urged him to "stick with the team" last year and refuse to allow an increase in the debt ceiling. "I said, 'Can you imagine . . . the signal it would send to the international marketplace about our irresponsibility?' "

A questioner asked Voinovich about GOP colleagues, such as incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who rule out any tax increases under any circumstances.

Voinovich, in his reply, scolded those who signed anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's pledge not to increase taxes. "How in the world can somebody that's an elected representative give their proxy on this issue to somebody else?" he asked - something 174 members of the current House and 34 senators have done. "Things have gotten to the point right now where the pledge we need to make is to the people of America to do something about this, this problem with debt."

But how will that happen, particularly with lawmakers such as Voinovich leaving Congress in disgust? The senator suggested that his colleagues spend a couple of days talking about their shared "vision for the country."

Couldn't hurt. But it wouldn't be quite as satisfying as blowing up the place.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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