March 12, 2010

Collins, Snowe deserve huge credit for helping to pass stimulus

— In the late 1950s, when John F. Kennedy began the research for his famous book Profiles in Courage, he started with the 100-year-old story of a little-known Maine senator, William Pitt Fessenden.

Fessenden, a Republican, had braved the united pressure of his national party, his colleagues in the Senate and his Republican supporters back in Maine to cast the deciding vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Johnson, a Democrat, had been Abraham Lincoln's vice president and the impeachment was driven by the Republicans in Congress on almost entirely political grounds.

They used as the pretext Johnson's supposed violation of a law affecting the tenure of federal employees, but the real purpose was more straightforward -- restore the presidency to the Republican Party.

The pressure on Fessenden was unbelievable -- both within the Senate and here in Maine, where mass rallies were held in Portland and Bangor and the state party threatened severe retribution (which they ultimately carried out) if Fessenden persisted in the effrontery of putting his country above his party.

Interestingly, the Republican governor at the time refused -- to his own political detriment -- to participate in the rallies or otherwise pressure Johnson as he made his agonizing decision.

And who was that governor? Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg.

Many feel that Fessenden's lonely vote may have saved our form of government -- that if the precedent had been established that a majority in the Congress could remove a president for essentially political reasons, the delicate balance established in the Constitution between the branches would have been forever altered.

And now it's happened again. At a time of national peril, when the stakes for the country -- and for countless individuals -- could not be much higher, two Maine senators, both Republicans, have braved the pressure of their colleagues and the united voice of their party to cast crucial votes of conscience in support of the economic stimulus proposal.

It is impossible for many of us to imagine or fully appreciate the courage that Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have demonstrated over the past 10 days. It's never easy to stand up against the united voices of one's own ''team,'' but it must be doubly difficult in a hothouse atmosphere like the Congress, where partisanship is the defining principle and party loyalty a cardinal virtue.

And it wasn't just a matter of voting; with reservations about the size of the package and some of its provisions, Collins went to work to make it better and stood at the very center of the final negotiations on the bill. Rather than standing on the sidelines to criticize, she entered the arena to act.

Without our senators' votes and that of Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the bill would have failed and the wrangling over its replacement would have extended well into the year, with no resolution in sight.

Is this a perfect bill? Of course not. Does it contain unnecessary spending? Probably, but probably not as much as you think. Will it save our sinking economy?

No one knows, but the alternative -- Congress endlessly bickering resulting in no bill or a severely watered-down one -- almost certainly would doom us to a long, painful and lingering recession, or worse.

But the discussion should not be about whether our senators were right -- I happen to think that they were -- but should focus instead on the fact that they did what they thought was right as they understood the complex and dangerous set of circumstances facing the country. That, in the end, they voted their consciences and best judgment and not their party.

The crisis we now face is the most serious challenge to the future of our country in our lifetimes and there are no clear guideposts for its resolution.

The stimulus bill by itself is certainly not enough to save us, but history may well determine that it was a crucial step in the process of economic renewal.

If that proves to be the case, the president and his Democratic colleagues in the Congress deserve great credit -- but no more so than Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, for without them, it would have all been for naught.

Leadership and courage are the words that come to mind -- and these two extraordinary women deserve our profound thanks, both for what they did and, perhaps more importantly, for showing us the right way to do it.

On Friday night, as the final votes were cast, I was never so proud to be from Maine.

— Special to the Press HeraldOn Friday night, as the final votes were cast, I was never so proud to be from Maine.

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