WASHINGTON -- Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican, joined the recording-breaking exodus of lawmakers fleeing Congress with the surprise announcement yesterday that he will not seek election to a fourth term.
A highly respected moderate who became frustrated with the political polarization in Washington, Mr. Cohen becomes the 13th senator to bolt for the door this election season. Never in the nation's history have so many senators left voluntarily at one time.
Mr. Cohen's departure will further thin the ranks of centrists in both parties, a trend that is likely to make it harder to forge compromises and could make gridlock even more common.
The retirement of the 55-year-old senator also reflects a pattern, particularly in the House, of relatively young lawmakers leaving Congress voluntarily in mid-career to pursue other interests.
The Maine Republican, who had been widely expected to seek reelection and had already begun raising money for the race, told reporters at a news conference in Bangor that the stalemate between President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress over a balanced budget agreement "was instrumental in crystallizing" his decision to leave.
Mr. Cohen built a reputation as an independent-minded senator who would not shrink from voting against the wishes of his party's leaders. He was the only Republican senator who voted against the party's seven-year balanced budget plan, objecting to its tax cuts.
"It is critical that we finally return to the virtues of self-discipline and fiscal prudence," Mr. Cohen said. "It is a moral imperative that we stop engaging in flagrant consumption and then hand over a $5 trillion debt to our children, with little more than a slap on the back and an expression of 'good luck.' "
As the budget showdown has unfolded over the past two months, Mr. Cohen said, he has spent a great deal of time in "introspection and soul-searching."
"I've concluded I can explore new challenges and make an even greater contribution to the people of Maine in other ways," the senator explained, mentioning his interest in international trade.
Having served nearly 24 years in Congress and four years in local Maine political offices, Mr. Cohen would not rule out a
return to public life. But he dismissed speculation that he might emerge as a vice presidential candidate on a GOP ticket headed by Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and his party's front-runner for the presidential nomination.
The Cohen retirement was greeted yesterday with surprise and dismay by his colleagues, even conservatives, who praised him as a lawmaker of uncommon intellect and integrity.
Among Mr. Cohen's keenest interests have been government ethics and national security. He rose to prominence as a young Republican congressman who was one of a handful in his party to vote with the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 to impeach President Richard M. Nixon, a fellow Republican.
Years later, Mr. Cohen was one of the lead Republicans on the joint congressional committee that investigated the Iran-contra affair. And he was the member of his party most outspokenly critical of Republican President Ronald Reagan's responsibility for misdeeds by some zealous aides.
"Some senators come and depart without making a ripple, while others like Bill Cohen who will clearly be remembered," said Sen. John McCain, a conservative Republican from Arizona, who called himself a very good friend of Mr. Cohen. "I'll miss his wit and his wisdom and his use of the English language, which was virtually unmatched in the Senate."
In his off-hours, Senator Cohen moonlights as an author. He has written eight books, three of them mystery novels, including the latest: "Murder in the Senate." He also co-wrote a book about Iran-contra with former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, the Maine Democrat who voluntarily left the Senate last year.
In some respects, Mr. Cohen seems to be following Mr. Mitchell's lead. Both are long-divorced fathers who are embarking on new marriages and new careers at an age when they are still young enough to enjoy them.
Mr. McCain, who was among those who had no hint of Mr. Cohen's decision, surmised that the Maine senator may have been affected by the death last fall of his 86-year-old father, Reuben, a well-known Bangor baker.
It was also clear to Mr. Cohen's colleagues, though, that he was increasingly unhappy in the Senate, even with his fellow Republicans in charge, because moderates were so often shut out of influential positions.
His departure likely means that the next Congress will be more polarized than the current one. Of the retiring senators, eight are Democrats and five are Republicans, but nearly all are moderates, including the Republicans Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming.
"It's the incredible vanishing middle," says Sen. John B. Breaux, the Louisiana Democrat who worked closely with Mr. Cohen for a bipartisan, centrist position on health care reform last year and the budget this year.
He called Mr. Cohen's decision to leave "symptomatic of the frustration that many moderates are finding in the House and the Senate, both on the Republican and the Democratic side."