by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (center in pink), a Maine Republican, talks with audience members Tuesday evening after her speech at the Mark O. Hatfield Distinguished Historians Forum in Portland.When Olympia Snowe saw Congress change for the worse after more than 30 years as part of it, she got out.

But her memoir, which she discussed Tuesday night in Portland, isn’t just about what she’s done in the past. “Fighting for Common Ground” is also about what people can do to shape the future of Congress — and the country.

“I took the fight to change the institution outside, because it was not going to change from within,” Snowe told a full house at Portland’s First Congregational Church, where she spoke as part of the Mark O. Hatfield Distinguished Historians Forum.

The forum, sponsored by the Oregon Historical Society, is named after the former Oregon senator who organized it in 1998. Hatfield died in 2011.

Snowe’s first two years as a U.S. senator from Maine coincided with Hatfield’s last two years as a senator in 1995 and 1996. Both were moderate Republicans. Snowe decided against seeking re-election in 2012, after serving 18 years in the Senate and 16 in the House. Like Hatfield, she also was in both chambers of her state legislature.

Snowe said voters in Maine and Oregon have had one thing in common: “They expect their public officials to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons.”

Make government work

In her final two years, Snowe said, the Senate could not pass a federal budget, Congress brought the nation to the brink of default, and passed the fewest laws in recent history. Congress finally did agree on a two-year budget, but only after a partial federal government shutdown last fall that lasted 16 days, longest since 1995.

“Yet it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” she said.

Snowe said presidents and congressional majorities of opposite parties, going back more than three decades, have come up with agreements on the budget and taxes and other issues.

But she said the current Congress is likely to be even less productive than its predecessor, which set a modern-day low for bills passed. Partisan gridlock is responsible for Congress’s inability to take on such issues as reduction of budget deficits, overhaul of the tax code, and changes in the economy, health care and immigration policy, she told the forum audience.

“If you don’t make government work, you can’t address any of the issues,” she said.

Madam President?

She touched on several potential solutions focused on changing the congressional process and elections. But she also said: “We have to demand more from our elected officials.”

In a question-and-answer session afterward, Snowe was asked the same question that a 6-year-old student at Glencoe Elementary School in Portland posed in writing to Hillary Rodham Clinton when the former secretary of state spoke April 8 in Portland: “In 2016, would you prefer to be called Mrs. President or Madam President?”

Clinton, who said on April 7 she is considering running for the Democratic nomination again in 2016, only shrugged her shoulders and smiled. Snowe isn’t running. But her response was: “Let me put it this way: The Republican Party would require an extreme makeover — and I think Sen. Hatfield would agree with that.”

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