All eyes are on Olympia Snowe on healthcare debate

Olympia J. Snowe may be, for the moment, the most powerful woman in Washington.

As the lone congressional Republican working to support President Obama’s healthcare overhaul, no one will be more closely watched when the Senate Finance Committee votes next week on a bill aimed at curbing costs, improving coverage and making insurance more attainable for those without.

Many in her party are appalled that the Maine senator would even think of helping Obama. Her support might make it easier for moderate and conservative Democrats to go along. More significantly, Snowe could hold the crucial 60th vote that divided Democrats may need to overcome a GOP filibuster, which would kill the president’s top domestic priority.

But her position -- standing apart from most fellow Republicans, sitting squarely in the sights of interest groups attacking from both sides -- is a familiar, if not particularly pleasant, one for Snowe. She often broke with President George W. Bush and Republican colleagues on tax cuts, abortion, stem cell research and Alaskan oil drilling.

“I’d rather have company,” she said of her latest threatened defection, with a rueful laugh. “But it’s a different political world we’re in. . . . Most people represent either red states or blue states.”


Maine -- rough-hewn and fiercely independent -- is neither.

Obama carried the state with 58% of the vote the same day Snowe’s colleague, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, was reelected with 61% support. (Collins is a bit more conservative than Snowe and appears less likely to go along with Democrats.)

The message from voters on healthcare is just as mixed.

Take, for instance, Normand Paquin and Laurie Hauschild. Both are 40-something survivors of the recession, who live and work near Maine’s rugged coast. But the two are poles apart when it comes to healthcare.

“There’s no question healthcare needs fixing,” said Paquin, who owns a restaurant in Ogunquit, a touristy town in the south corner of the state. “It’s too expensive.”

Hauschild, an office manager for a Portland construction firm, acknowledges some Americans can’t afford health insurance. But, she said, “I don’t think we need to reconstitute the whole system if it seems to work for the majority.”

Snowe seems to fall somewhere between the two.

She says the healthcare system needs repair. But she worries that many lower- and middle-income Americans won’t be able to afford coverage required under Democratic plans, even with government subsidies.

She would consider a government-run program to compete with private insurers, but only as a fallback if companies fail to rein in costs.

Already, Snowe has wrung several big concessions from the White House and Democratic lawmakers, slowing the pace of deliberations and reducing the size and scope of any legislation that stands a chance of passing the Senate.

Still, she remains undecided on the finance committee bill and, further, said her vote would not necessarily dictate her decision on final passage of a measure.

It’s unlikely Snowe would suffer politically no matter how she votes. The 62-year-old senator won her third term in 2006 with 74% of the vote and, if anything, may be even more popular today.

“She’s basically untouchable,” said political analyst Chris Potholm. “When the lefty loonies start screaming, or the right-wing kooks come after her, the rest say [she] must be doing something right.”

Maine has a long-cherished tradition of electing lawmakers unafraid to ignore partisan attachments, whether it was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith condemning Joseph McCarthy, Rep. William S. Cohen voting to impeach President Nixon, or Collins and Snowe supporting Obama’s economic stimulus plan, as they did in February. (About 40% of voters here are registered independents, surpassing both major parties.)

“The expectation is that a senator from Maine will be a nationally significant figure,” said Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “For 60 years the image has been country first, state second and party third.”

In Snowe’s case, the willingness to go it alone is even more personal. She was orphaned at a young age: “You grow up quickly,” she once said. “You become independent.” She was widowed at 26, and after remarrying, lost a stepson who collapsed and died from an undiagnosed heart ailment.

Lately, Snowe has been the target of all manner of persuasive effort, including TV ads assailing her for negotiating with Obama (by the conservative Club for Growth) and opposing the “public option” creating a government-run health plan (by the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America).

“After all she’s been through, anybody who thinks they can change her by beating on her is out of their mind,” said Democrat Tony Buxton, a longtime Maine activist.

In Washington, Democrats from Obama down have courted Snowe with phone calls, private meetings and public blandishments that can sometimes border on the obsequious. (“Brilliant statement,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said after Snowe delivered boilerplate remarks at the start of the finance committee debate.)

Snowe appears unmoved. During one marathon bill-writing session last week, as Democrats lavished her with praise, she huddled with aides or kept her head down, burrowed in papers. It was not even clear she was listening.

What matters, Snowe said during a coffee run, is what Maine voters think.

“They expect their elected officials to try to solve problems, engage in crafting policy and not politics,” she said. “Outside groups play a role. . . . But at the end of the day, it’s about the people I represent.”

Maine is a pretty but relatively poor state, rich in natural resources but subject to the not-so-tender mercies of nature.

Tourism is the leading industry; October brings the leaf peepers, savoring a blaze of red, orange and gold. Others make their living like generations past, at the huge Bath Iron Works shipyard, or pulling what they can from the sea.

The state never really recovered from the last recession, which may explain the lack of tolerance for partisan sniping or political score-settling; as one Republican consultant noted, neither puts food on the table.

“The economy is a little tougher, the weather a little colder, the distances a little farther,” said David Emery, who once served with Snowe in Congress. That, he suggested, makes people a little more independent.

Maine has about 1.3 million widely scattered residents, one of the country’s oldest populations, some of the highest per capita medical costs and one of the biggest percentages of people lacking health insurance.

It seems virtually everyone has thoughts on what does, or doesn’t, need fixing, often with an anecdote to make his or her point.

A high school teacher in Bath opposes Democratic reform efforts, mentioning a Canadian friend who can’t get the new hip he needs under its government-run system.

A retired Navy man in Augusta backs the public option, citing a woman with heart disease who was dropped for a preexisting condition -- acne -- when she sought treatment.

Paquin, the restaurateur in Ogunquit, which is chockablock with boutiques and beach homes, has medical coverage but believes a public option would let him insure his employees.

Hauschild, who has insurance through her job in Portland, wants Congress to focus on other issues, like immigration, that have gotten tangled up in the healthcare debate.

Both said they respected Snowe’s independence.

“I don’t think it’s finger-in-the-wind politics,” Hauschild said. “I think she acts, for the most part, on principle and what she believes in.”

The senator is still trying to square those beliefs with the legislation taking shape before her .

“It’s a very hard issue,” said Snowe, whose place on the committee rostrum is, fittingly, just to the right of center.

“People want me to stick to my guns to do what I think is right,” she said, ducking back into the committee room.

The tough thing, she added, is figuring out what that is.