WASHINGTON — In the farewell remarks of her congressional career, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe called representing Maine “the greatest privilege of my life” but also expressed concerns the Senate was “losing the art of legislating” amid the partisan gridlock.

Snowe urged her Senate colleagues to follow the authors of the U.S. Constitution by returning to “governing through consensus” even as she vowed to work to change Congress from the outside.

“I’m not leaving the Senate because I’ve ceased believing in its potential or I no longer love the institution, but precisely because I do,” Snowe said in a speech as her staff and her husband, former Maine Gov. John McKernan, watched from the floor or the gallery. “I’m simply taking my commitment to the Senate in a different direction.”

The roughly 37-minute speech was, in many ways, reflective of Snowe’s 34-year career representing Maine in Congress. She talked about the bipartisanship of years past and repeatedly invoked the Founding Fathers as well as such well-known former Maine representatives as Sens. Margaret Chase Smith and George Mitchell.

Yet the speech also was laced with the frustrations that Snowe said prompted her to drop her re-election bid last winter, despite her strong popularity among Maine voters. In addition to writing a memoir, Snowe has launched a leadership institute for young women and a political action committee that she says will help lawmakers committed to consensus-building.

“Throughout my tenure, I’ve borne witness to government’s incredible potential as an instrument for that common good,” Snowe said. “I have also experienced its capacity for serial dysfunction. Indeed, … it is regrettable that excessive political polarization in Washington today is preventing us from tackling our problems in this period of monumental consequence for our nation.”

Snowe’s decision to retire shocked the political establishment and put in play what had been considered a safe Republican seat, opening the door for the election of independent former Gov. Angus King. It also marked an end of an era as the third-longest serving female member of Congress prepares to retire.

At age 31, Snowe became the youngest Republican to join the House in 1978. With her election to the Senate in 1994, she became the first woman in history to serve in both chambers of her state legislature and Congress.

Three people who have known Snowe for much of that time — McKernan and personal friends Sharon and Dr. Daniel Miller of Cumberland — were among the small group watching the floor speech from above while seated in the Senate gallery. Sharon Miller ran numerous campaigns for both Snowe and McKernan, and Daniel Miller is a former tennis partner of McKernan’s.

“I thought it was very moving and appropriate for our country,” Daniel Miller said afterward while Snowe and McKernan posed for pictures in the ornate waiting room next to the Senate chamber. “The call for bipartisanship is very timely.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called the speech “one of the most beautifully crafted … and elegant statements” and “so appropriate for the parting words of a senator who is truly among the great who (have) served here.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who recently surpassed Maine’s Smith as the longest-serving woman member of Congress, noted that she and Snowe worked closely together on a host of women’s health issues over the years.

“Her duty-driven approach and her uncommon sense of getting the job done in a way that’s inclusive … has benefited our entire country,” Mikulski said.

Snowe was the latest departing senator to deliver her farewell remarks — if not her final floor speech — during a week when little official business was getting done on either the House or Senate floor. Congressional leaders have been negotiating with the White House about finding a resolution to the so-called fiscal cliff by Dec. 31, but progress on a compromise has been slow.

Snowe, who has represented Maine in Congress for 34 years, urged her colleagues to work together to find a solution to the tax increases and deep spending cuts that economists fear could push the economy back into recession.

“For the sake of the country, we must demonstrate to the American people that we are, in fact, capable of making the big decisions by putting in place an agreement and a framework to avoid the fiscal cliff before we adjourn this year,” Snowe said.

The Senate, Snowe said, has become more akin to a parliamentary system in which competing parties jockey to block votes rather than work together. She also called on the next Senate to proceed cautiously with Democrat-led plans to change the filibuster, the rule that requires a minimum of 60 votes to proceed.

Snowe offered a lengthy list of examples of major or politically divisive issues — including Medicare, Social Security and the Civil Rights Act — that were passed through bipartisanship and cooperation. However, she seemed to agree with a recent study that said the current Senate was more polarized that at any other time since immediately after the Civil War, adding “I worry we are losing the art of legislating.”

“So as I depart the Senate that I love, I urge all of my colleagues to follow the Founding Fathers’ blueprint, in order to return the institution to its highest calling of governing through consensus,” Snowe said.

Standing outside the Senate chamber afterward, McKernan said Snowe characteristically spent considerable time writing the speech. McKernan served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives alongside his future wife before winning two elections as Maine governor.

“It’s a message that’s so important and one that she can deliver better than anyone, because she lives it,” McKernan said.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC