September 5, 2010

Snowe: Putting politics aside 'to do what you can'

Confirmed moderate wins admirers and admonitions alike in her bids to straddle the partisan divide.

By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer

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Maine's senior senator, Olympia Snowe, on a break from Senate proceedings, interacts with constituents in Portland's Old Port early last month.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe speaks with patrons at Becky's Diner in Portland last month. The Maine Republican has developed a reputation for moderation as she influences congressional legislation.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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This is the second of two installments examining the records and achievements of Maine’s senators. To read last Sunday’s piece on Sen. Susan Collins, click here.


For a time, during the heated congressional clashes over health care reform, many thought the most powerful politician in Washington was not President Obama, but a thin, raven-haired three-term senator from Maine.

"We as a party have spent the last six months, the greatest minds in our party, dwelling on the question, the unbelievably consuming question of how to get Olympia Snowe to vote on health care reform," thundered U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., in a noted House floor speech on Oct. 8, 2009.

"I want to remind us all that Olympia Snowe was not elected president last year. Olympia Snowe has no veto power in the Senate. Olympia Snowe represents a state with one-half of one percent of America's population."

Grayson was referring to his party's frantic courtship of Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican whose willingness to partner with Democrats on health care only seemed to deliver bipartisan anger and frustration.

Liberal Democrats were concerned more progressive aspects of the bill would be slashed by Senate Democratic leadership looking to cut a deal. Meanwhile, Republicans feared Snowe would blast a hole in their unified opposition.

Snowe had broken from the GOP on health care reform by voting to move the Senate Finance Committee's version of the bill to the full Senate -- the only Republican on the five congressional committees dealing with health care legislation to do so.

This earned her not only boos from critics, but also salt.

"Olympia Snowe has sold out the country," wrote Erick Erickson on his conservative blog, Red State. "So we should melt her. What melts snow? Rock salt. I'm going to ship this 5 pound bag of rock salt to her office in Maine. It's only $3. You should join me. It is a visible demonstration of our contempt for her. First she votes for the stimulus. Now this."

According to the Wall Street Journal, one hardware store in Indianapolis received nearly 250 mail orders for five-pound bags of rock salt from across the country, all to be delivered to Snowe's office in Portland.

(Snowe staffers said the salt did arrive -- and was donated to Preble Street in Portland, which provides shelter and other aid for the homeless and needy.)

Voting for reform should have cemented Snowe's place at the negotiating table, since at that time, Democrats were desperate for 60 Senate votes to overcome a promised Republican filibuster.

Spurred by repeated sentiments like Grayson's, however, Democratic leaders in the Senate abandoned the version of reform supported by Snowe for one more favored by the liberal wing of the party.

This left Snowe -- who endured bitterness, jealousy and contempt from inside and outside Congress while working for the bill -- feeling jettisoned by Democrats who said one thing, but really meant another, she said.

In hindsight, Snowe said this process offered a new meaning of bipartisanship.

"(The Democratic) version of bipartisanship is my vote for their bill," she said in a recent interview. "It's an either/or environment at a time in which we need to be solving these great problems."


The push-pull nature of the health care debate was trying, Snowe said.

"You are in this partisan divide and as one who's straddling it, or trying to do the very best I can, you just have to stay focused, don't lose your values and do what you've always done," she said. "That's sort of the advice I give to myself. You just have to stay totally centered, know why you are there, for what reasons, who you represent, why you came, what you are doing and what's the problem you are trying to solve. And that's what I've done."

(Continued on page 2)

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