February 26, 2010

Influence grows for moderates Collins, Lieberman

SETH MCLAUGHLIN

— By

Special to MaineToday Media

It was early December in the nation's capital, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the junior senator from Maine, sat in the Oval Office with some of the country's most powerful people.

She was the center of attention.

President Obama had invited Collins to discuss the health care reform bill being negotiated in the Senate, and to get a sense of what he needed to do to win her support in the historic debate.

Three days earlier, on Dec. 4, Collins, a Republican, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., told reporters they would not support a public option, or any safety-net plans triggered in states where insurance companies failed to offer access to ''affordable'' health care.

The health care debate is only one example of Collins' and Lieberman's influence in the political center. The Collins-Lieberman alliance has been evolving for some time.

Collins campaigned for Lieberman's re-election in 2006; he supported her bid in 2008. The two also have repeatedly landed on the same side of such crucial issues as the war in Iraq and the $787 billion economic stimulus package approved by Congress last February.

''He is a close friend,'' Collins said Thursday. ''I respect (his) ability and I trust him. He does what he thinks is right.''

The two also have worked on prominent issues in committee.

The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs -- of which Lieberman is chairman and Collins the ranking Republican member -- was the panel that launched an investigation into the December shootings at a military base in Texas.

And just this week, the committee announced it will be holding hearings this month about the foiled attack on a Northwest Airlines flight in Detroit, allegedly by a Nigerian national with reported links to al-Qaida.

''While (Lieberman and I) don't always agree on every issue, we have always worked together in a bipartisan manner to try and help solve some of the most pressing issues facing our country,'' Collins said.

The influence of moderates has been particularly important to the health care debate.

In the Dec. 4 news conference, Collins described the failures of Dirigo Health, Maine's subsidized health insurance program, as a ''cautionary tale'' of what happens when the government gets involved in the health care business.

That led to the Oval Office meeting Dec. 7.

During the 40-minute meeting, Collins made it clear to Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and administration health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle that she wouldn't support the bill because it did not do enough to control costs, and because it offered a public option.

Two days later, Collins was back inside the White House -- this time for a one-on-one meeting with the hard-nosed Emanuel.

About those talks, White House spokeswoman Moira Mack said that ''Senator Collins is very engaged in working toward a health reform bill, and we are working closely with both of Maine's senators and every senator who wants to deliver the reforms American families need.''

By lobbying Collins so strongly, the president and his aides signaled that passage of a health care bill in the Senate might come down to a handful of moderates. Lieberman and Maine's other GOP senator, Olympia Snowe, have also received White House attention.

With a 58-seat Democratic majority, independent and Republican moderates are courted heavily on controversial bills to secure the 60 votes needed to avoid a GOP filibuster.

Health care reform received 60 votes in the full Senate on Christmas Eve -- but it faces one more Senate test after the lawmakers from both houses settle on a compromise bill.

Moderates, again, are likely to influence the result.

As it stands, if any of the 58 Democrats or two independents -- U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vermont, is the other -- pull their support, Obama's signature initiative could sink.

''You need 60 votes to do just about anything (in the Senate), and you certainly need 60 votes to do anything big like health care reform,'' Lieberman said. ''The moderates in both parties have a lot of influence. We have the ability to take proposals that may be to the left or right and bring them back to the center before they get 60 votes.

''And you know Senator Collins has done a lot of that work,'' he said. ''She's not a reflexive partisan. She's a Republican, but she has an independent mind and everybody knows you just can't assume she will go the way that most Republicans are going. And that is raising her clout here.''

On the Senate version of health care reform, Lieberman and Collins did split. He supported it, while she still refused because of the nearly $500 billion in Medicare cuts that the bill contains.

Yet both, it seems, got what they wanted from the process.

''I think there was a feeling that maybe they were going to wear us down or convince us that we were wrong,'' Lieberman said. ''But I think we both felt on this one that it was so significant a step for the federal government to take -- putting the federal government into the insurance business and accepting the risk of great debt -- that this is one where we had to say we can't compromise.''

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