We look back on 5 votes in his 30-year career
Jeff Bingaman became an Eagle Scout in boyhood and never stopped achieving.
He graduated from high school in Silver City, went to Harvard for his bachelor’s degree in government and then on to law school at Stanford.
Voters elected him New Mexico’s attorney general in 1978, when he was just 34 years old.
Democrat Bingaman soon took a memorable stand, suing the U.S. government because he wanted state regulators involved in what would become the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a disposal site for radioactive waste near Carlsbad.
By 1982, Bingaman decided he wanted to be part of the federal government. He ran for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Harrison Schmitt, who walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 crew.
Ronald Reagan was midway through his first term as president, but Bingaman believed Republicans were vulnerable. He challenged Schmitt’s effectiveness with a stinging campaign slogan: “What on earth has he done for you lately?”
Bingaman defeated Schmitt and was re-elected four times. Now, at 69, Bingaman will retire from the Senate on Jan. 3 after 30 years of service.
He already has given his farewell speech in the Senate. Looking back to the early 1980s, Bingaman summed up his view of government.
“I believed then and I believe now that the federal government can be a constructive force for good; in protecting and maintaining the civil liberties of all Americans, in maintaining and strengthening our economy, in protecting our environment and in helping Americans live productive and fulfilling lives.”
In the parlance of the Senate, Bingaman was a workhorse, not a showhorse. He cast thousands of votes. Here are five on high-profile issues.
Bingaman voted against confirming Thomas.
“First, he was unqualified. Second, I didn’t think he’d been forthcoming” during the hearings, Bingaman said.
Senators confirmed Thomas 52-48 in October 1991 and he remains an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
The U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Clinton in a sex scandal. But the Senate in February 1999 acquitted Clinton, enabling him to hold the presidency.
Bingaman, like all Democrats in the Senate, voted not guilty.
Explaining his rationale for acquitting Clinton, Bingaman said this: “The illicit sexual affair which the president engaged in, and the president’s efforts to conceal that affair, are permanent black marks on his presidency. His actions were deplorable, indefensible and immoral.
“But however reprehensible these acts were, they are not impeachable offenses. They did not endanger the government. They were not the ‘stuff’ which the writers of the Constitution had in mind when they used the phrase ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ ”
Bingaman initially supported the Patriot Act after the terrorist attacks of 2001. He voted against reauthorizing the measure in 2011.
“I strongly support giving law enforcement the tools they need to aggressively fight terrorism, but those tools must be line with our Constitution,” he said. “I do not believe this legislation strikes the right balance, and am disappointed that there was no real opportunity to amend it.”
War, 2 decisions
Bingaman in 1991 opposed authorizing force against Iraq in the Persian Gulf war.
In 2002, he again opposed military force against Iraq, this time on the heels of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
“This is, in my view, a virtually open-ended grant of authority," Bingaman said of President George W. Bush’s plan. “It is not a proper action for Congress to take at this time. I do not believe it’s wise at this point to authorize war without support of the United Nations and our allies.
“If war must be waged, other countries should be there with us sharing the costs, both the financial and the human costs, and helping restore stability in what will almost certainly be the tumultuous aftermath of that military action.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., was a colleague of Bingaman’s for the last four years. Udall praised Bingaman in a speech on the Senate floor, saying he embodied the best of government and politics.
“When Jeff came to the Senate 30 years ago, this was a different place,” Udall said. “Folks worked together. They clashed, but they also compromised.
“We all know what has happened since then. Washington has become more and more polarized. But time and again Jeff Bingaman has been a voice of reason.”