Washington (CNN) - A day after she shocked her colleagues and constituents by announcing her retirement, moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine explained her decision and defended tough criticism she leveled at her colleagues when she announced why she would leave the Senate.
"People are just stunned by the debilitating partisanship, polarization and the overall dysfunction of the institution and political paralysis as we come, you know, to the point of extreme when it comes to resolving the problems facing our country," a frustrated Snowe told CNN Wednesday. "It's become an all or nothing proposition and that failure has eroded the public's confidence about the direction of this country and about governing institutions to be at the front lines of solving these problems."
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Known as a pragmatic centrist comfortable working both sides of the aisle, Snowe is now one of six moderates leaving the Senate this year. The exodus will leave the narrowly divided and partisan chamber with just a handful of senators who regularly appear willing to vote with the other side.
"The tragedy here is that everybody I know who comes to the United States Senate, comes to get something done. And that's the real reason they come here," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Connecticut, who is one of those moderates retiring this year. "And yet people are sort of pulled apart by this process and end up in warring camps, a kind of perpetual partisan tug of war which forgets the people who were good enough to send us here and the country that we pledged ourselves when we took our oath to support. You know, I hope people listen to the words Olympia Snowe spoke yesterday and that particularly members of the Senate respond."
"I think she lost hope," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who like Snowe and Lieberman in 2005 was part of the Senate's so-called Gang of 14, which helped avoid a shutdown of the chamber over a nasty fight about filibustering judicial nominees.
"You know all of us need to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you lose that belief why do you spend seven years of your life – which in her case would have been her commitment – to do something that there seems no hope," Graham said.
One defining issue for Snowe was the fight over passing President Barack Obama's signature health care reform legislation. Democrats tried desperately to get Snowe and a few other Republicans to back the measure. While Snowe did vote in committee for an early version of the bill, in the end, none of the Republicans supported it and a major law was passed with only Democratic votes.
"It wasn't a good example of how mega legislation should be handled," Snowe said. "As I noted in my speech at the time, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, welfare reform, all were passed with wide bipartisan margins in both the House and the Senate. That really is, I think, a great example of the levels of governance we should aspire to in the United States Senate. Rather, it's been the opposite. It's the lowest common denominator."
Snowe also challenged Republican presidents.
For instance, she was a thorn in the side of former President George W. Bush's administration when she regularly questioned its Iraq war policy and pushed to withdraw troops.