JOHN CHAFEE was not entirely at home in the modern Senate. The lack of fit reflects on it, not him. He had an old-fashioned sense of a senator's duty. On issue after issue -- access to health care, access to child care, environmental questions -- he would patiently try to legislate rather than strike a political pose. Too often he was defeated by the parties, not least his own.

The Rhode Island senator died of heart failure Sunday night at age 77. He was in the penultimate year of a fourth term and had announced he would not seek reelection. When he came to the Senate in 1976, having earlier served as a popular governor and secretary of the Navy, it was an institution in which Republican moderates such as he often were able in combination with Democrats of like mind to play a significant role. The number and influence of such Republican moderates has dwindled over time, as has the maneuvering room in the substantive middle that they occupied. The Senate has become more partisan and less supple. Mr. Chafee himself was ousted in 1990 from the No. 3 position in the party hierarchy for failure to adhere sufficiently to conservative doctrine.

He was allowed to remain as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Among his contributions from that vantage point were not just bills he produced but bills he blocked. His likely successor, James Inhofe, will be a different kind of gatekeeper. As a senior member of the Finance Committee, Mr. Chafee became a voice for bipartisan compromise on health care and child care as well but tended to find few takers. He was willing to break with his party's positions on such issues as campaign finance and gun control. The Senate will be a lesser place without his independence.