For a time, during the heated congressional clashes over health care reform, many thought the most powerful politician in Washington was not President Obama, but a thin, raven-haired three-term senator from Maine.

“We as a party have spent the last six months, the greatest minds in our party, dwelling on the question, the unbelievably consuming question of how to get Olympia Snowe to vote on health care reform,” thundered U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., in a noted House floor speech on Oct. 8, 2009.

“I want to remind us all that Olympia Snowe was not elected president last year. Olympia Snowe has no veto power in the Senate. Olympia Snowe represents a state with one-half of one percent of America’s population.”

Grayson was referring to his party’s frantic courtship of Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican whose willingness to partner with Democrats on health care only seemed to deliver bipartisan anger and frustration.

Liberal Democrats were concerned more progressive aspects of the bill would be slashed by Senate Democratic leadership looking to cut a deal. Meanwhile, Republicans feared Snowe would blast a hole in their unified opposition.

Snowe had broken from the GOP on health care reform by voting to move the Senate Finance Committee’s version of the bill to the full Senate — the only Republican on the five congressional committees dealing with health care legislation to do so.

This earned her not only boos from critics, but also salt.

“Olympia Snowe has sold out the country,” wrote Erick Erickson on his conservative blog, Red State. “So we should melt her. What melts snow? Rock salt. I’m going to ship this 5 pound bag of rock salt to her office in Maine. It’s only $3. You should join me. It is a visible demonstration of our contempt for her. First she votes for the stimulus. Now this.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, one hardware store in Indianapolis received nearly 250 mail orders for five-pound bags of rock salt from across the country, all to be delivered to Snowe’s office in Portland.

(Snowe staffers said the salt did arrive — and was donated to Preble Street in Portland, which provides shelter and other aid for the homeless and needy.)

Voting for reform should have cemented Snowe’s place at the negotiating table, since at that time, Democrats were desperate for 60 Senate votes to overcome a promised Republican filibuster.

Spurred by repeated sentiments like Grayson’s, however, Democratic leaders in the Senate abandoned the version of reform supported by Snowe for one more favored by the liberal wing of the party.

This left Snowe — who endured bitterness, jealousy and contempt from inside and outside Congress while working for the bill — feeling jettisoned by Democrats who said one thing, but really meant another, she said.

In hindsight, Snowe said this process offered a new meaning of bipartisanship.

“(The Democratic) version of bipartisanship is my vote for their bill,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s an either/or environment at a time in which we need to be solving these great problems.”

‘YOU CAN BRING PEOPLE ACROSS’

The push-pull nature of the health care debate was trying, Snowe said.

“You are in this partisan divide and as one who’s straddling it, or trying to do the very best I can, you just have to stay focused, don’t lose your values and do what you’ve always done,” she said. “That’s sort of the advice I give to myself. You just have to stay totally centered, know why you are there, for what reasons, who you represent, why you came, what you are doing and what’s the problem you are trying to solve. And that’s what I’ve done.”

Snowe staffers say one of the boss’s favorite sayings is, “Process dictates product.”

“The idea is, like anything, if you do the right thing, and you build a real consensus, then you can bring people across,” she said. “And that just has not been (the Democrats’) impetus,” she said.

Despite this disenchantment, however, Snowe remains a bellwether on Capitol Hill. In addition to being the lone Republican to vote for any version of health care, she also supported the economic stimulus package, financial regulatory reform and a $26 billion state aid package.

Snowe and fellow Mainer U.S. Sen Susan Collins were among the few Republicans to support those bills. Snowe has voted with Republicans 67 percent of the time in this Congress, according to The Washington Post.

Collins has the same percentage, giving them the lowest percentage of party-line votes of senators in either party.

While Collins commanded the spotlight in stimulus talks, Snowe worked quietly to help shape the $787 billion measure by bringing the White House lists of spending initiatives she thought should be cut or added.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the Obama administration’s envoy to Congress, said the pair have represented Maine well.

“They are fierce about their independence and about their pragmatism,” he said in a recent interview. “When they look at a piece of legislation, their first question is, ‘What is the immediate impact on Maine and how does this affect Maine?’ They are tough about it, they keep asking the kind of core questions that need to be asked.”

SENATORS’ CURRENCY COULD RISE

Their perch in the middle has created an interesting dynamic at home for Maine’s senators, however.

Earlier this year, the Maine Republican Party made national headlines for adopting a strict, conservative party platform that supports, for example, eliminating the federal Department of Education and the Federal Reserve.

Despite this, the chairman of the Maine GOP said Maine Republicans are not disappointed with Snowe’s and Collins’ votes on the stimulus. “No,” said Charlie Webster. “(But) I don’t believe if the vote was held today that they would necessarily vote that way again.”

Webster believes the mood of the current party may influence the senators going forward, especially if Republicans have a strong showing in November’s state legislative races. He defines political independence as a willingness to oppose party leadership, if that is what constituents expect.

“I expect that they will still be independent but I think they will be more comfortable voting in a more Republican, conservative way if they understand that people in Maine also agree with that,” he said.

Snowe, however, stands by her vote. She said the economy would now be worse without the spending bill.

“It was mindful of small business, low-income families, those that were unemployed and those who were desperate to hang onto their jobs,” she said of the final package. “Could we have done better? Absolutely. Could we have done it differently? Absolutely.”

The senators could have the chance to do things differently if Republicans in Congress have a strong November showing. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader in the Senate, said if Congress tilts right, the currency of centrists like Snowe and Collins will increase.

“Regretfully from my point of view, and I think the two Maine senators would agree with me, this administration and the majority in Congress have basically pursued pretty far left agendas,” he said. “I think if there is a shift in the Congress this November, the president is likely to move to the political center and you can bet that Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins will be right in the middle of negotiating agreements that will inevitably be made in the center.”

‘WORK AT MAKING THINGS WORK’

It’s in negotiating that Snowe, and Collins, have earned cross-aisle accolades from fellow senators.

“(Snowe) was deeply engaged throughout health reform’s evolution, regularly working to ensure families and small businesses in Maine and across the country would benefit from the new law,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chair of the Senate Finance Committee. “Sen. Snowe’s tremendously hard work made the health care bill a better bill. In an increasingly toxic political environment in Washington, she only cared about one thing — delivering for Maine.”

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said the style used by Snowe and Collins used to be more prevalent among his colleagues, but no longer.

“Both of them have a deep respect for process in the Senate, which makes them almost unique, not just among Republicans but amongst senators,” he said, referring to both of Maine’s senators in a recent interview. “I don’t know what it is in the water, but there is something unique about the place that produces some damn good people.”

In Maine, their efforts are respected, if not lauded.

Tarren Bragdon, chief executive of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said Snowe and Collins have reflected Mainers’ concerns about government spending.

“When you look at their record on Obamacare, some of their statements on cap-and-trade, and any number of smaller votes on tax-related issues, you can see that fiscal accountability in the moderate caucus and I think that’s a huge shift that really reflects their concerns, which I think is the average Mainer’s concern, about out-of-control government spending and debt,” he said.

Christopher “Kit” St. John, executive director of the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy, said he appreciates the duo’s efforts to find solutions.

“They haven’t gone along with the position of no,” he said. “They have decided they are going to work at making things work — legislating — which is what the people send them there to do. So for that, we are very grateful.”

L. Sandy Maisel, a Democrat and government professor at Colby College in Waterville, said Snowe has become one of the most respected senators in Congress.

“She has placed herself in the very upper echelon of senators in terms of respect with which she is held for her expertise in a number of policy areas and her work ethic,” said Maisel.

Though he said he disagreed with her choice to vote against the health care law, Maisel said it highlighted her independence.

“Sen. Snowe clearly became very upset with the administration over the health care debate near the end and they lost her vote because of that,” he said. “In some ways what that shows is sort of her continuing independence.”

‘I’M HELPING THE COUNTRY’

What burned Snowe on health care, she says, is how Democrats used a “ram and jam” method to block her ideas on reform and propel policies that lacked broad political support — like a public option for health insurance.

It was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who unveiled a version of the bill that included a public option — a government-run health care plan.

Snowe, and even some Democrats, had long opposed a public option. Her approach, however, was not blanket opposition, like the rest of her Republican colleagues; she supported a compromise plan — a fallback option, or trigger.

According to Snowe’s proposal, the federal government would set coverage and affordability thresholds for private insurance plans. If those goals weren’t met after a certain time, it would “trigger” a public plan, with the threat of government competition driving changes in private industry, Snowe said. A similar model was employed by Medicare Part D and never triggered.

“I thought the trigger made good sense, and it did, but they used every mechanism to avoid it,” she said. “But not based on any rationale, rather it was avoiding making a concession to me as a Republican.”

The concessions Reid did make were aimed at swaying holdout Democrats. This included a $300 million increase in Medicaid in Louisiana (which was dubbed by pundits as the “Louisiana purchase”) for the vote of Sen. Mary Landrieu, and a permanent exemption for Nebraska of an additional state payment for a Medicaid expansion for Sen. Ben Nelson. This latter exemption, $45 million over the first 10 years, was known as the “Cornhusker kickback.” Both were eventually dropped from the bill.

Snowe has said she wasn’t interested in special treatment, but wanted to craft what she thought was a stronger piece of legislation.

“I feel an inordinate personal and professional responsibility to try to do everything I can to bring all my expertise and all my knowledge and thinking to the table to try to see if we can get it right,” she said. “But in any event, it’s not always going to work out to your liking, but I do try to give it my level best.”

Reid eventually pulled the public option, leaving Democrats to rely on a rare procedural tactic called reconciliation to pass health care reform by simple majority, rather than the 60 votes needed to block a Republican filibuster.

Though Snowe ultimately sided with her party on health care reform, her early support for it — and her votes on the stimulus, jobs and financial regulation — still has fellow Republicans saying she’s just helping out Obama.

Snowe contends her cause is much greater.

“I’m helping the country,” she said. “The thing is, I do it for the people I represent and for the country. And you are not always going to get what you think is entirely the best product, but you are going to do what you can that’s going to achieve the ultimate result in the best interest of people. That’s what it’s about at the end of the day.” 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

rmetzler@mainetoday.com