PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, smarting over the way Democrats moved health care negotiations behind closed doors and left her and other Republicans shut out of the process, is waiting for them to make the first move toward salvaging portions of the health care overhaul bill.
Snowe, once viewed as President Barack Obama’s best hope of crossing party lines to support his health care legislation, said she remains committed to playing a constructive role. But she said she was left frustrated by the partisanship she saw after Senate Democrats mustered 60 votes, enough to move forward without the threat of delaying tactics by Republicans.
Democrats no longer have the needed votes after Tuesday’s election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. So Snowe, along with fellow Republican centrist Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, could end up in the middle of whatever revamped health care legislation emerges.
Snowe, who prides herself on her bipartisan approaches to the thorniest issues, said she feels there’s bipartisan support for several elements such as ending some “egregious practices” by insurance companies, allowing people to buy insurance policies offered in other states and creating tax credits to encourage small businesses to offer health insurance for their employees.
For now, she’s not ruling anything in or out.
“They’re regrouping right now. It’s too soon to tell how this will transpire in terms of moving forward,” said Snowe, who has remained in contact with the White House.
Collins said she also believes there are areas of agreement between both parties. She said she hopes Obama will start over and lead an effort to draft a consensus bill.
“There is a bipartisan health care bill that could be drafted that would have widespread support, rather than trying to cram the Senate-passed bill through the House,” Collins said.
People don’t want steep cuts to Medicare included in the current bill, and they don’t like the closed-door negotiations that led to special deals for some states, she said.
“American people don’t want to see special deals sneaked into the bill in order to win votes,” she said. “There was real revulsion over the special breaks for Nebraska and Louisiana that had been negotiated behind closed doors.”
She said the back room deals were being derided as the “Louisiana Purchase.”
For now, Snowe said, it’s up to Democrats to decide how to proceed after adding 1,200 pages to the legislation and undermining the process with closed-door negotiations that caused Americans to lose confidence. It’s no wonder, she added, that some polls showed that the health care legislation had support of only 32 percent to 34 percent of Americans.
Massachusetts voters forced something Snowe had been advocating since December, “to take a legislative pause or a timeout, build bipartisan support for the pieces that can work,” she said.
Democrats have to abandon the process they established in the beginning, “step back to the drawing board and figure out a kind of process that’s going to build confidence,” Snowe said.
That means, she said, “that the president and Congress have to reach out to many Republicans and determine what’s achievable in these very difficult circumstances.”
House Democrats on Thursday signaled that any agreement on Obama’s signature issue will come slowly, if at all.
As the Democrats continued to absorb Brown’s election to Kennedy’s old seat, several said Obama must forcefully help them find a way to avoid the humiliation of enacting no bill, and they urged him to do so quickly, to put the painful process behind them.