REDUCED ATTENDANCE IN THE SENATE…
WASHINGTON – It costs millions of dollars to get in, comes with a nice salary, plenty of staff members, national influence and real prestige, but the Senate obviously does not hold the irresistible attraction it once did.
Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican stalwart, was the latest to jolt his colleagues this week with his decision to depart for the new administration — a Democratic one at that. Mr. Gregg became the third senator to leave for the executive branch and the fifth if you count Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., who now run the executive branch. Others, notably Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, were eager to make the move.
Ken Salazar served only four years of his first term as a senator from Colorado before resigning to become interior secretary, a nice job for a Westerner but not necessarily a can’t-turn-down plum for a senator with a bright future.
Four Republicans have announced they will retire at the end of their current terms.
The Senate appears to be in a recession of its own.
“I think there are some aspects of Senate life that haven’t been fun the last couple of years, which have to do with the acrimony and lack of getting things done,” said Senator Mel Martinez, the Florida Republican who announced this year that he would not seek a second term. “It is not fatal to the institution, it has been here a long time, but there are a lot of people leaving.”
Mr. Martinez and others say another factor is the incessant fund-raising needed to generate the money to run for the chance to win and raise more money to run again.
“It is a huge money chase, and in a bad economy it gets that much more difficult,” said Senator Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who is not running next year in accordance with a term-limits pledge.
Then there are the politically charged message votes, the impossible-to-please interest groups, the strain on family, the angry constituents, the uninformed critics and the intensifying news media scrutiny.
“Really, you just have to watch everything,” said Chuck Hagel, the former Nebraska Republican senator who decided not to seek re-election last year after a flirtation with running for president.
Mr. Hagel, 62, who plans to teach and engage in some business ventures, said he wanted to go out at a point where he could pursue new opportunities. But he acknowledged a certain frustration with the way things got done — or did not — in the Senate.
“You have 100 members in there now who essentially all have the same rights,” Mr. Hagel said. “Any member can get up at any time and talk as long as they want, make as big a fool of themselves as they want.”
Even those who are sticking around admit that the Senate ground is shifting.
“The classic script of the Senate is you get elected, keep in touch with the folks back home and stay a gazillion years,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. “That has been turned on its head.”
Democrats say Republicans, now in the minority in both the Senate and House, must grapple with the sense of irrelevance that can come from being out of power. They say that Mr. Martinez of Florida faced a difficult re-election and that even Mr. Gregg was going to struggle to win a fourth term in New Hampshire.
The House is suffering a bit of its own drain as well. Representative Adam H. Putnam, Republican of Florida and a former House leader, has already announced he is quitting to seek state office.
But it is not just Republicans. At some points last year, it seemed the entire Senate was angling either for the presidency, the vice presidency or a cabinet slot. Hillary Rodham Clinton, foiled in her presidential bid and stuck down the seniority ladder, leaped at the chance to be secretary of state in her rival’s administration, and Senator John Kerry wanted the job as well.
Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel left a top position in the House Democratic leadership to become White House chief of staff. And Hilda L. Solis resigned as a congresswoman from Los Angeles to become the nominee for labor secretary.
The lawmakers say people have individual reasons for quitting: age, health, the search for a new challenge, a sense that they have a hit a wall. After serving as a governor and as a member of the House and the Senate, Mr. Gregg may have seen the cabinet as a way to round out his career.
But Mr. Salazar, who took the interior job offered by Mr. Obama, had just begun a promising career in the Senate and was a well-liked centrist with a Hispanic heritage from an increasingly important swing state. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and majority leader, said Mr. Salazar could not turn down the opportunity.
“It was a very difficult thing for him to leave,” said Mr. Reid, who noted Mr. Salazar’s growing up as part of a large family on a ranch with no electricity. “This means so much to his family to have a Salazar as part of the president’s cabinet.”
And Mr. Reid, who is devoted to the Senate, said it would be wrong to presume other recent departees were simply fed up.
“You can’t blame Obama,” said Mr. Reid about the Senate’s most prominent loss. “He was here two years. He couldn’t have gotten tired of it that quickly.”