Maine’s Key Senators

Posted Dec. 14, 2008, at 6:34 p.m.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are in a special position to exert leverage to pass or block major legislation in the coming session of Congress. As members of the dwindling group of moderate Republicans, they can expect to be courted by both parties in close votes. They will influence legislation and test the currently popular notion of bipartisanship.

Their committee positions can be crucial. Sen. Snowe is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Collins is on the Homeland Security Committee and Governmental Affairs Committee. Their votes in committee and on the floor can be decisive, which also is important to Maine from a practical perspective. Although both are legislators of high principle, it is a fact that earmarking for local projects is a central part of the legislative process.

“Democrats are going to have to turn to them,” said Christian Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College. “This is a great thing for Maine. We have two senators at the very center of power and activity.”

Bipartisanship carries a broad appeal to the American public. Both senators preach and practice it. So does President-elect Barack Obama, and he seems to be taking steps to avoid early clashes with the Republicans in the new Congress. He is said to be prepared to leave the Bush tax cuts in place, at least until they expire in 2010, and the financial crisis makes it a poor time to raise anyone’s taxes. He also may delay reopening negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement and ending restrictions on gays in the military.

Still, reaching the almost universally expressed goal of bipartisanship won’t necessarily be smooth sailing. Some issues defy compromise. For example, confirmation of a likely Supreme Court nomination or the many lower-court nominations could involve sharp controversy.

Maine’s senators both stuck with their party in voting to confirm President Bush’s controversial nominations of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general and Samuel Alito and John Roberts for the Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see how they weigh party loyalty against their respect for a presi-dent’s prerogatives.

Other issues that could test their bipartisan desires include the Democrats’ likely efforts to repeal the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act, which deprived prisoners in the Guantanamo detention center of the right to appear before a court of law. The Supreme Court repeatedly has rejected that restriction, but new corrective legislation may be introduced. When the Military Commissions Act was passed in 2006, Sen. Collins voted for it and against a proposed amendment restoring habeas corpus. Sen. Snowe was absent for a family funeral and did not vote, but she joined with five other Republicans to allow a vote in 2007 to restore habeas corpus.

Their votes will be watched closely in the coming session.

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