Sen. Olympia Snowe, a key player in the historic and rancorous debate over health care reform, announced Sunday that she will not support the reform legislation pending in the U.S. Senate. The Senate bill was scheduled for an initial vote at 1 a.m. today and was expected to win the support of all 60 Senate Democrats and inde-pendents but, with Snowe’s announcement, not even one Republican.
Snowe said the Christmas deadline imposed by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats for voting on the Senate measure is unacceptable and fails to allow for the continued analysis and change she feels is necessary to protect consumers, taxpayers and the shaky business sector. In particular, she said, she cannot accept a 400-page amendment filed late last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that, because of the process of adhering to the Christmas deadline, is not subject to debate or amendment.
In a telephone interview Sunday afternoon, Snowe said she remains committed to health care reform and will continue to work with her colleagues to improve the legislation as it moves toward final resolution in a House-Senate conference process and a subsequent vote in both houses.
She said she does not discount the urgency of the health care reform issue or the broad support in Maine for change.
“I recognize the imperative of accomplishing this reform,” she said. “But in the final analysis, I will be accountable for the outcome of this legislation.”
Meanwhile, health reform activists gathered Sunday for rallies in Presque Isle, Bangor, Lewiston and Portland, urging Maine’s two moderate Republican senators, Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, to support the Senate bill and its subsequent merger with the House health care reform bill. A vote on the merged bills is expected early next year.
Collins already has said she will not support the Senate bill, citing its timeline and her concerns for its effect on the business sector and the general economy.
But despite widespread dissatisfaction with both the House and Senate bills, said Greg Howard, director of the advocacy group Maine Change That Works, “we need to move forward with this process and do it now.”
Howard said both Snowe and Collins have indicated their dedication to enacting meaningful reforms and he praised them for not participating in the “partisan blood sport” going on in Congress.
“We’re asking both the senators to continue to play an active role in health care reform,” Howard said. “We’re hoping they’ll continue to work in the interest of the people of Maine.”
Along with many of her GOP colleagues, Snowe long has argued against taking a fast-track approach on an issue as complex and far-reaching as reforming the nation’s health care system. But Snowe stands out as the only Republican in the Senate to vote in favor of the measure as it emerged from the Senate Finance Committee in late October. She is widely credited with having worked diligently in that setting to build GOP support for the bill — support that has failed to materialize in the increasingly factionalized atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
Snowe said on Sunday that her high-profile involvement in negotiating the shape of national health reform increases her accountability for the final product.
“I am accountable to the people I represent,” she said. Issues such as employer mandates, new Medicare taxes, the cost of private insurance premiums, and the overall impact of the reform on the national economy remain inadequately analyzed, she said.
Ultimately, she said, the urgent need to improve the national health care system must be balanced with the priority of fully understanding the ramifications of the changes adopted.
She has met several times with Obama — three times last week alone, she said — to request an extended timeline. She’s not asking for an open-ended process.
“I think we should come back after New Year’s and work this some more,” she said.
But, she said, the president is concerned that the longer the Senate bill remains open to amendment, the more opportunity politically conservative opponents will find to erode it.
Snowe said she hears often from voters in Maine about the necessity of reforming health care. But many people, she said, oppose changes proposed in the House and Senate bills and express frustration with Democrats’ hasty timeline.
“People ask me, ‘What are they trying to hide?’ I hear that a lot,” she said. “The point is, this can be accomplished. It can be done. But people want us to be exacting, and they don’t see an exacting process.”
Snowe’s official statement is published on her Senate Web site, snowe.senate.gov/public.