December 30, 2012

U.S. Senate transitions: Old-style Republican transcended party politics

Sen. Olympia Snowe shaped tax and health care laws and helped break down gender biases.

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

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Olympia Snowe
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Sen. Olympia Snowe, named by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential people in the world in 2010, smiles after delivering her farewell speech to the Senate.

File photo/The Associated Press

Olympia Snowe
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A video image provided by Senate Television shows retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, giving her farewell speech on Dec. 13. Snowe said she remains hopeful that the Senate can overcome “excessive political polarization” and work together to reach consensus on important issues facing the nation.

The Associated Press/Senate Television

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Snowe was the Republican most heavily involved in the Senate Finance Committee’s attempt to craft a bipartisan health care reform bill, although she ultimately voted against the final version now known as Obamacare.

Her independent streak and reputation as an old-school, Northeast centrist Republican helped Snowe remain in Congress for decades despite dramatic changes in Maine’s political landscape. She never lost a re-election bid and often captured more than 60 percent of the vote.

But some hard-core conservatives scorned her willingness to work with Obama and the Democrats, dubbing her a “Republican in name only,” or RINO, in online message boards and letters to the editor.

The resentment occasionally bubbled to the surface, such as when a group booed Snowe at a Republican caucus in Bangor last winter.

Snowe has said there wasn’t any one event that triggered her retirement. Instead, it was the realization that the political discord in Washington wasn’t getting any better, as evidenced by the current stalemate over the “fiscal cliff.”

“It’s governing by deferral, deadlines and deadlocks, which imposes a great hardship on the country,” Snowe said. “It might get there, but it’s a painful process in the interim. And it won’t be done well because we will not do it with the thoroughness and the deliberation that these issues require.”

Several polls in recent years showed Snowe was more popular with Democrats and independents than she was with Republicans in the state, giving rise to speculation that she could face her first major primary challenge in 2012.

A serious contender never emerged, however, despite the tea party’s promised “Snowe removal” campaign. And Snowe was widely believed to be gliding toward another victory when she withdrew from the race. The surprise decision was arguably the first public crack in Republicans’ failed attempt to re-take the Senate in 2012 and it opened the door for independent Sen.-elect Angus King’s victory.

Ten tumultuous months later, Snowe doesn’t hesitate when asked whether she ever regrets the decision to step down.

“No, but I regret it for the reasons why,” Snowe said. “I wish it were different, that we were pursuing bipartisan solutions. Because then there wouldn’t have been that tug and that nag about the future.”


With her wardrobe of brightly colored suits and her jet-black hair unfailingly pulled back in a ponytail, Snowe has always stood out in the congressional crowd of dark suits on gray-haired men. And she looks much the same, whether in a photograph taken in Maine’s legislative chambers during the 1970s or snapped last week in the hallways of the Capitol building.

Congress has certainly changed around her, however.

Snowe was one of just 17 women in both chambers of Congress when she first took her House seat in 1979, compared to a record 20 women that will serve in the Senate alone next year.

In 1978, the 31-year-old was the youngest Republican woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Snowe’s other list of historical markers include: first woman in U.S. history to serve in both chambers of her state legislature and both chambers of Congress, and the first Republican woman to serve on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Today, Snowe ranks as the third longest-serving woman in congressional history.

Most of the items on Snowe’s personal list of accomplishments were bipartisan. They include working with former House Speaker Tip O’Neil of Massachusetts in 1979 to create the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP; expanding and making refundable the popular child tax credit; establishment of the federal program ensuring libraries and schools across the country were connected to the Internet; banning insurance companies from dropping clients due to genetic tests; and decades of work on budget and tax issues.

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Sen. Snowe shows a picture of the Navy destroyer under construction at Bath Iron Works to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who presented Snowe with the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award.

Kevin Miller/Staff Writer


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