WASHINGTON — As moderate Republicans, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins will play a major role in the new Senate as both political parties will hunt for their votes to pass, or block, major legislation.
“They are going to be very critical players in the Senate,” said former Rep. Charlie Bass, head of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. “They will be in a position to police legislation.”
In the 111th Congress, President-elect Barack Obama’s legislative agenda will not face as much resistance in the Democratic-dominated House as it will in the Senate. Although the Democrats will have at least 56 seats in the Senate, they won’t have the 60 votes required to end a filibuster, a tool used by the minority to delay or block votes on legislation.
If Democrats can’t find common ground with the minority leadership on a bill, they would have to reach out to Republicans. And the most likely to support them are the moderates.
“They are going to be so influential,” said Douglas Kriner, assistant professor of political science at Boston University. “Since the Democrats won’t have 60 seats and because there are differences within the Democratic caucus, they’ll have to reach across the aisle.”
The group of moderate Republicans went from six to four senators after the election, Bass said. The two others are Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, although Coleman faces a recount in his bid for re-election.
In 2007, Snowe and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana created the Common Ground Coalition, a bipartisan group whose goal is to bring members from both parties together to work on major issues.
And Collins was part of the Gang of 20, a bipartisan group that worked in September on an energy bill.
The Maine senators also sit on influential committees. Snowe is a member of the Senate Finance Committee and Collins is on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee.
With these bipartisan records and important positions, their votes will be coveted by the Democrats.
According to Christian Potholm, professor of government at Bowdoin College, this configuration will also be beneficial to Maine.
“Democrats are going to have to turn to them,” he said. “This is a great thing for Maine. We have two senators at the very center of power and activity.”
Snowe and Collins each said the new political configuration is not much of a change regarding their work in the Senate, as they will keep promoting a bipartisan approach.
“This is the way I have always worked,” Collins said. “The difference is the margin. Democrats clearly will be reaching out to moderate Republicans, so it should strengthen the role that I play.”
“When it comes to major issues, we have to develop solutions that embrace a bipartisan approach,” Snowe said. “No party has a lock on good ideas. I want to work to fuse those differences and be a catalyst to embrace change to solve issues.”
Bass said that although Snowe and Collins have always worked according to what they believed in rather than sticking to the party lines, a change is coming.
“I don’t think their philosophy will change, but their influence definitely will,” he said.
Snowe and Collins said that cooperation across party lines is more important than ever to address the issues that the country is facing.
“Too many issues have been seen as partisan or an opportunity to score political points,” Collins said. “The American people want us to work together.”
Snowe said that unlike the past two years, the new Congress has to put aside differences to address the country’s pressing problems.
“There is a greater pressure on both sides to answer the overwhelming message sent in the election,” she said. “We have to show that we’ve got it. Too many wanted to play the partisan game, and as a result there was a repudiation of the status quo of the last Congress.”
On whether the two parties will actually cooperate, Collins and Snowe are confident but cautious.
“I am seeing it [cooperation], but we have to get beyond the talking point,” Snowe said. “It didn’t happen the last two years. If we haven’t heard this message, then something is really wrong.”
“I am concerned whether Senator Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be willing to take a less partisan approach,” Collins said of the Senate majority leader and House speaker. “My hope is that Obama will set a tone that encourages bipartisanship on both sides.”