March 4, 2010

County follows Collins to Senatepressherald.comSlideshow, plus links to TV interviews

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins
click image to enlarge

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins

AP

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins
click image to enlarge

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins

AP

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

Monday through Saturday, a young Susan Collins would see her father head to work, running the family's lumber business.

He'd get a bit of time off late Saturday afternoon and on Sunday.

Each fall, the future senator and her brothers and sisters would join the entire community of Caribou in a single task, whole families working the potato harvest, getting the crops in before the frost, before the snow.

''Everyone in The County works hard; consequently, that's what we know,'' said Sam Collins, the senator's brother. ''It's ingrained in us, it carries forward when we go to work in other parts of the state or the country.''

That work ethic, supporters say, has become a defining trait of his sister's career in the Senate. The 56-year-old, now in her third term, has applied it to campaign finance reform, homeland security and countless other issues.

And now the issue is health care reform.

Passage of a controversial $900 billion health care reform package is the top priority for Democrats, and the starts, stops and politics have gripped the country. President Obama has the votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, but it's a fragile situation. If any Democrat, or either of the two independents, yanks his or her support, the package is stuck.

So centrist Republicans like Collins and her colleague, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, are again in the spotlight. Snowe, as a member of a group of Finance Committee senators working on a compromise bill, was able to get many of her concerns addressed through her pivotal role.

Now it's Collins' turn.

SMALL FIRMS, RURAL CARE A FOCUS

Since January, Collins said, she has had more than 150 meetings on health care reform. She's spoken with constituents, Republican and Democratic colleagues, and administration officials. She met recently with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for about an hour -- a meeting that included a 25-minute pop-in by Obama.

She's working the issue with a group of centrist senators that includes Lieberman; Snowe; Evan Bayh, D-Ind.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

The Senate bill, said Collins, ''needs substantial improvement.''

How would she have voted were she on the Finance Committee, where the bill originated?

''I'm not sure what I would have done the Finance Committee bill is the best effort yet. I appreciate all the work that Olympia has done to improve the bill,'' said Collins. ''It still falls short, in my view, of the approach we should be taking. It does not do nearly enough to rein in the cost of health care.''

Still, Collins thinks Congress should keep working toward health care reform. Moving forward, she's focused on improving the bill to ensure that small businesses aren't hurt by any reforms, and on looking at health care options for rural parts of the country.

She's been clear about what she sees as the bill's failings. She's concerned the bill could have the unintended consequence of increasing the cost of insurance for middle-income families that may not qualify for subsidies.

The bill imposes deep cuts in Medicare, said Collins, and she's worried that will cause problems for hospitals, home health agencies and others.

She's discussed the issue with her brothers, who run the fifth-generation S.W. Collins lumber company, as well as with other Maine companies, like Norway Savings Bank.

She's heard her brothers' frustrations as small business owners. S.W. Collins provides health insurance for its 60 employees. Sam Collins said his grandfather began offering employees health insurance, at a time when such a benefit was unusual. It picks up two-thirds, the employees pay the remainder.

But every year, the company has seen a major increase in its insurance costs.

''We're put in the position of having to raise the deductibles every year just so it can be affordable for our employees and the company,'' said Sam Collins. ''We're forced into providing a plan that's less a benefit because of the higher and higher deductibles each year -- it's frustrating to us.''

In addition, Susan Collins contends, the bills under consideration penalize high-quality, low-cost areas of the country like Portland by imposing Medicare cuts regardless of reimbursement rates and quality. Essentially, even areas that get good medical results while spending money efficiently will also be forced to make cuts.

And the bills don't have significant health care delivery reforms that could drive the cost of insurance down, she said.

Missing from the debate, said Collins, is whether there are adequate health care providers throughout rural America. That's important to a state like Maine, said Collins, and she said she hopes to be able to push that concern as Capitol Hill's attention is focused on her.

She'd like to see ways to increase the number of health care providers in rural areas, including everything from doctors to dentists, and said she supports residency programs that aim to keep medical professionals in Maine.

Collins said she knows how tough it is for many of Maine's residents to access health care. Often, patients as far north as Madawaska have to travel hundreds of miles to medical centers in Portland for procedures, at all times of the year.

And her attention to the impacts on small business is nothing new. She served as the Small Business Administration's New England administrator from 1992 to 1993 and became founding executive director of the Center for Family Business at Husson College in 1994.

And, too, small business is in her blood.

''Susan understands because from her earliest day she's lived small business,'' said Jim Page, a friend since childhood and CEO of James W. Sewall Co., an Old Town geospatial engineering and natural resource consulting firm.

DEEP ROOTS IN AROOSTOOK COUNTY

Over Labor Day weekend, Collins served as the grand marshal of Caribou's sesquicentennial parade, marking the community's 150 years.

As part of the celebration, she visited Caribou High School, and thought about the journey she's taken from northern Maine to the chambers of the U.S. Senate.

''I never forget my roots,'' said Collins. ''Growing up in Caribou taught me so much -- the value of hard work and integrity and standing tall for what you believe in.''

In Caribou -- in many small communities throughout Maine -- what was true when Collins was young is still true today: People work together, come together.

''That sense of community is very strong in The County,'' she said. ''It shaped how I work in the Senate.''

As long as Caribou has been a city, the Collins family has been civically involved.

Her great-great-grandfather, Samuel Collins, was elected to the Maine House in 1856 and served three terms there and one in the Senate. Her great-grandfather served in the House; her grandfather was a representative and senator.

Her mother and father both served as Caribou mayor; her father was also a state representative and four-term state senator.

''There was a sense of community responsibility, community improvement and betterment. The Collinses were real leaders in the Caribou and central Aroostook environment,'' said Page. ''She's very much a product of that: civic responsibility, doing the right thing, long-term benefit as opposed to short-term gain.''

In that atmosphere, Collins' first job, even before picking potatoes, had a sense of giving back: As a teenager, she worked at the Caribou Public Library, reading to children during story time.

She went to college at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where she spent this weekend at a reunion. She worked for 12 years on Capitol Hill for Republican Maine Sen. William Cohen, then took a job in the Cabinet of Republican Maine Gov. John McKernan as commissioner of professional and financial regulation.

That's where Stephen Diamond first observed Collins' work practices. He used to run the Maine Office of Securities, and Collins was his department's liaison to the governor and Legislature.

''I used to be one of the last ones to leave the building. That changed when she became the commissioner,'' said Diamond. ''Invariably, no matter what time it was, she would still be there.''

He'd stick his head in the door, their quick chats became longer and Collins was soon having dinner with him and his wife, Nancy, at their Gardiner home. They'd play hearts; Collins and his daughter, Jill, would generally beat Diamond and his wife.

When she was elected to the Senate in 1996, Collins asked Stephen and Nancy Diamond to work for her in D.C. Stephen Diamond started off as legislative counsel and became her first legislative director. Nancy Diamond worked as Collins' executive assistant.

Each night, Collins' five legislative experts would hand her five briefing books, detailing the latest news. Each morning, she'd return five books, memos annotated, floor statements edited.

''She's a very hard-working and thoughtful senator. She really does her homework, you can rely on what she says,'' said Lieberman. ''When it comes to an agreement, you can trust her.''

SMALL STATE, GREAT INFLUENCE

Again and again, Maine's senators are taking center stage on issues of national -- sometimes international -- importance.

As the country becomes increasingly divided along partisan lines, politicians willing to live in the center find themselves both scarce and in demand.

''They stand out in the Republican caucus in the Senate because of their pragmatism,'' said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

''In a highly polarized political environment, if you are someone who has friends on both sides of the aisle and votes occasionally with the other party, you're something of a celebrity. Or someone who is routinely denounced.''

Snowe has been sharply criticized by conservatives nationally and in Maine for her vote of support for the health care bill that came out of the Finance Committee. But Baker said he didn't see her position -- or Collins', depending on her future health care votes -- at risk.

Both senators enjoy broad support from Democrats and undeclared voters, as well as from Republicans, noted Baker.

''You've got a state full of people who are independent-minded New Englanders who may belong to one party or the other, but ultimately will make up their own minds about what's right,'' suggested Lieberman. ''That's true about who they'll vote for, as well. Both Susan and Olympia reflect that Maine spirit.''

Lieberman said he gets along with Collins because he enjoys her company, respects her ability and trusts her. Those factors go a long way in the Senate, he said.

''You always have to remember while the Senate is a great legislative body with a lot of very significant responsibilities, it's also 100 people who go to work in the same place every day,'' said Lieberman.

And those 100 people are listening closely to two key senators from a small, rural Northeastern state, noted Sam Collins.

''That's the big positive, that part's exciting,'' he said. ''We've obviously got my sister and Olympia who are grounded in Maine and understand the struggles of Mainers -- and have good common sense and want to find a solution.

''We're well-represented as Mainers.''

-- The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Charles Dharapak

Joseph Lieberman
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Joseph Lieberman

AP

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Sen. Susan Collins walks with Sen Joseph Lieberman on their way to a meeting of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, January 21, 2009. Collins was appointed to the Senate Appropriations Committee and received a waiver so she could maintain her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins
click image to enlarge

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins

AP

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins
click image to enlarge

Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins

AP

5
click image to enlarge

5

DCCD106

5
click image to enlarge

5

Charles Dharapak

Joseph Lieberman
click image to enlarge

Joseph Lieberman

AP

click image to enlarge

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Sen. Susan Collins walks with Sen Joseph Lieberman on their way to a meeting of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, January 21, 2009. Collins was appointed to the Senate Appropriations Committee and received a waiver so she could maintain her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

  


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