The most exasperating fact of life for a U.S. senator is not wrestling with those impossible, angry windbags across the aisle. The true test of civility is forging a relationship with that one other person who was sent to Washington to work alongside you. That unwanted sibling with whom you must share everything: a beloved home state, a prestigious job and all the voters out there in the dark.
If you happen to be members of the same party? Even worse.
Same-state rivalries abound in the Senate. And delicious tales of clashing egos and epic grudges are widely shared — doled out by insiders like pieces of Capitol Hill candy. Some of these special relationships matter more than others. For years, tensions along the border of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry fascinated Senate-watchers, because both Massachusetts patricians had such sway.
Now the complex partnership to watch is the team from Maine. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderate Republicans, are wedged into a tight political corner together. As the polarized right and left duke it out for airtime and dollars, these two women — often ignored — have unprecedented power.
Publicly, the duo is known for voting together. Lockstep. Straight down the middle. In the past 15 years, they have voted in unison on war, taxes, gays, guns, health care and the stimulus package. And when it came to the 2008 presidential election, they both went early for John McCain.
But raise their names among staffers, journalists, even other senators, and the first thing mentioned isn’t their voting record, but the wintry chill between them. Their Capitol Hill nickname, The Sisters, reflects both their public synchronicity and their private conflict.
“Did you say you were writing a dual profile — or, is that d-u-e-l?” asks Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., with a chuckle. He is a close friend and colleague of Collins. “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Senators are only human. Why is that so easy to forget? Sometimes they seem more like statues in the park, familiar figures we walk past every day without really seeing — or knowing in depth. Snowe and Collins have cast the deciding votes on the most monumental legislation of our time, but otherwise fly under the radar and remain unexamined. In Washington, they are accorded only two attributes: They vote together and they are intense rivals. At a demonstration of Senate civility during the president’s State of the Union address in January, Snowe and Collins each happily crossed the aisle to sit with a Democratic colleague. But what truly would have surprised people is if they’d sat with each other instead.
Female rivalries are often exaggerated, of course. But in their case, it is real – and it doesn’t seem to have much to do with gender.
“There is something of an intramural competition between them,” William Cohen offers, completely unprompted. He is the revered former defense secretary and Maine senator for whom Collins worked for 12 years. “It’s really pretty natural. Every day you are out there, trying to justify your existence to your constituents.”
Maine has a history of sending heavyweights to the Senate — people of character, sound independence and the utmost civility. Ed Muskie, the statesman. George Mitchell, the conciliator. Or Cohen, the polymath — foreign affairs expert, novelist, poet and former basketball star.
And there’s Margaret Chase Smith, a freshman senator who in 1950 became the first Republican to take a stand against anti-communist Sen. Joe McCarthy. Her impassioned speech against blacklisting on the Senate floor, her “Declaration of Conscience,” was so dramatic that it became a TV movie starring Patricia Neal. By the time Smith left the Senate in 1972, she had alienated liberals by supporting the Vietnam War and her own party by voting against two of Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees.
Snowe and Collins each mention Smith as an important role model — and must share her daunting legacy, the way they must share so much else, including their home state. Maine, with its sharp northern light, rocky coastline, archipelago, endless tracts of inland forest and 1.3 million no-nonsense residents who love them back. In 2006, Snowe — who has never faced a primary challenger — received 74 percent of the vote in the general election. In 2008, a tough year for Northeast Republicans in Congress, Collins received 60 percent of the vote in her home state.
Amid the sensational battles in Congress, and the notorious inability of the two sides to just get along, the stories of individuals are often lost. But if the center is still holding, these two fascinating women are the reason why.
“Do they have a professional relationship? Yes,” Cohen says. “Are they close? I don’t think so.”
Pioneers in any field — male or female — are often loners, people who are driven to lead, not become part of a crowd. And conflicts between them, not unlike those between older and younger siblings, can be so deep that they are hard to define or articulate. “If you are having trouble making sense of their rivalry,” says a longtime friend of both, “it’s because it doesn’t.”
“State congressional delegations act like families,” says Cokie Roberts, who has covered Capitol Hill for more than 30 years and whose mother and father served in Congress. “Sometimes two senators can be very close, and others engage in more than a little sibling rivalry and a few downright hate each other … whether they are men, women or one of each.”
Yet, civility endures between Snowe and Collins. Like Maine, it is a state they share — and a guiding principle of their lives. Last month, when the first fundraising letter for Snowe’s 2012 re-election effort was sent out, it was signed by Collins, appealing to her own supporters to give generously to Snowe.
“I have always had the utmost respect for Olympia,” Collins says, when asked to describe their relationship. “She is a fighter who cares deeply about our state and its people.”
Snowe says: “I have known Susan and her family for a long time. We work well together and combine our efforts to address Maine’s priorities. That relationship has served Mainers well, both in Maine and Washington. Oftentimes, members of our staff will travel the state together to ensure people are receiving the representation and service they deserve.”
Do they like each other? No- according to dozens interviewed. But it may not matter. And it could be too much to ask. “When I was first elected,” says Lieberman, “Christopher Dodd told me that the hardest relationship most senators have is with the senator from their own state. He hoped that wouldn’t happen to us.”
Even Cohen, so respected for his decency while serving in the Senate, jostled for attention with his same-state nemesis, Mitchell, who rose during their tenure to positions of greater power, eventually becoming the Senate majority leader in 1989.
The rivalry between the Cohen and Mitchell offices could be heated at times — and kind of pathetic. “We went to ludicrous extremes,” confesses Bob Tyrer. “If we could get an announcement in Mitchell’s hometown paper, taking credit for something he had done — ‘Cohen hails passage of blah, blah, blah …’ — it was like a 12-point word in Scrabble that lands on a triple-bonus square. What’s the expression? The battle was so fierce because the stakes are so small.”
By all accounts, Snowe and Collins have not descended to such antics. Could it be because they are women? “Without question, the women in the Senate are the most collegial group of all,” Roberts says. “They are truly the last bastion of bipartisanship. They get things done, and work together — the way that men and women in Congress used to but don’t anymore.”
“In this time of prickly partisanship,” says Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., “the Senate women want to be a force. We want to be functional.”
Snowe’s and Collins’ offices issue joint announcements when needed. Their staffs collaborate frequently, and sometimes discuss votes before they are made — in an effort to decide what is best for Maine. Republican organizers in the state say the senators work well together at party functions and complement each other. The animosity between them is “vastly overblown,” says Nicholas Graham, a former press secretary in the Snowe Senate office.
“It’s a healthy tension,” claims Kevin Raye, the president of the Maine Senate, “and it makes the staff better.”