U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe has built a reputation as a powerful force for moderation in Washington over the course of more than three decades in Congress. She has been a voice for and organizer of the chamber’s centrist members. Her votes on key issues have often broken with the Republican Party line.
And that streak hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In 2006, Time magazine labeled Snowe one of the 10 best senators, calling her “one of the most effective advocates for her constituents” who finds herself at “the center of every policy debate in Washington.” A year earlier, Forbes magazine ranked her 54th on its list of the world’s 100 most powerful women.
Yet Snowe, 65, now thinks she can exert her greatest influence from outside the Capitol dome where she has served since 1979, first as a House member representing Maine’s 2nd District and for most of the past 18 years as Maine’s senior senator.
“I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve seen how Congress can work and should work. We’ve departed from that markedly, and we’ve lost the importance of consensus-building and compromise,” she said recently in an interview with the Bangor Daily News. “I just think in analyzing what has sort of transpired, I realized that perhaps my insider’s voice and views can be matched with outsider’s frustration.”
Snowe shocked the political establishment in February when she announced she would retire from the Senate rather than seek a fourth term, citing an atmosphere of hyperpartisanship in Washington that has led to gridlock.
Independent former Gov. Angus King captured a majority of the vote in a six-way race last month and announced days later he would caucus with Senate Democrats, switching the seat from Republican to Democratic control. He will be sworn in Thursday.
Throughout the race to replace Snowe, King made dysfunction in the Senate a centerpiece of his campaign. He’s now set to take a seat on the Senate Rules Committee in hopes of tackling chamber rules and procedures, such as the filibuster, that he says have held up progress on key policies.
To Snowe, however, overcoming gridlock is more a matter of political will than reform of rules.
“Talk about rule changes and so on, but really, it wouldn’t necessitate that if we just changed our behavior,” she said. “We can have a bright, prosperous future if we’re determined to work together.”
Snowe has amassed a number of “firsts” during a four-decade career in public service.
That career started in 1973 when she won a special election to the Maine House seat left vacant when her first husband, Peter Snowe, died in a winter auto accident just four years after they had married. She won a full House term in 1974 and jumped to the Senate in 1976.
Two years later, Snowe won her first congressional election to represent Maine’s 2nd District in the U.S. House. Then 31, Snowe became the youngest Republican woman ever elected to Congress and the first Greek-American woman.
Snowe had served in both chambers of the Maine Legislature, so when she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994, she became the only woman in history to serve in both chambers of her state Legislature and both houses of Congress.
With that 1994 Senate election, Snowe became only the second woman to represent Maine in the Senate after Margaret Chase Smith, and she’s leaving the body as the third-longest-serving woman in Congress’ history. In 2001, Snowe became the first Republican woman to serve on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Snowe dated John “Jock” McKernan, who became her second husband, while the two served together in the U.S. House in the 1980s, Snowe representing Maine’s 2nd District and McKernan representing the 1st District. They married in 1989 during the first of McKernan’s two terms as Maine governor; Snowe was simultaneously first lady and member of Congress.
Asked to cite policy accomplishments she’s proud of from her 34 years in Congress, Snowe ticks off issues on which she collaborated closely with Democratic colleagues.
She worked with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to include a provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that required Internet service providers to connect schools and libraries to Internet service at affordable rates. The provision allocated funding to reimburse the providers for those discounts.
Snowe said it tops her list of accomplishments because of “the magnitude of the impact when you’re wiring virtually every school in America.”
Snowe also cites her collaboration with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which passed in 2008. The law prohibits health insurers from denying coverage to people or charging them higher premiums based on their genetic predisposition to particular diseases. It also bars employers from using genetic information to make hiring, firing and job placement decisions.
Those achievements, Snowe said, were possible because of heavy lifting at the Senate committee level — heavy lifting that generally isn’t happening today.
“That characterizes the lackluster process here in the Senate,” Snowe said. “You’re not having committees return to regular order and doing the business of the Senate. Many of the major issues have been deferred. This isn’t lost on the American people.”
As Snowe’s time in office wound down last month, a handful of Senate colleagues from both parties took to the Senate floor to recognize Maine’s senior senator.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky lauded Snowe for sticking up for her home state in 2005 as the Base Realignment and Closure commission considered Defense Department recommendations for base closures.
The Pentagon initially proposed closing Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery and a Defense Finance and Accounting Service center in Limestone. The commission ultimately shut down Brunswick Naval Air Station, but it decided against closing Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the Limestone site. The decision spared 4,500 jobs in Kittery and even resulted in the Limestone facility’s expansion.
Snowe was sharply critical of the Department of Defense recommendations and, along with the other members of Maine’s congressional delegation and former Gov. John Baldacci, attempted to highlight shortcomings in the department’s arguments supporting the facilities’ closure. Snowe even held up President George W. Bush’s nomination for Navy secretary, infuriating some Republicans, though she never confirmed the delay was related to the base closure recommendations.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who served with Snowe in the House and Senate and is herself Congress’ longest-serving woman, recalled fighting with Snowe to establish an Office of Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health.
“Though [Snowe was] on the other side of the aisle, there was no great divide between us,” Mikulski said on the Senate floor.
More recently, Snowe made a name for herself in 2009 as the only Republican on the Senate Finance Committee to vote to advance President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill to the rest of the Senate, though she later voted against it and now calls for its full repeal. Snowe was also one of just three Republicans — along with her fellow Maine senator, Susan Collins — to vote for the economic stimulus package in early 2009.
In the 1990s, she and Collins were among five Senate Republicans to vote to acquit then-President Bill Clinton of perjury charges related to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
When McConnell honored Snowe recently on the Senate floor, he had one request of the retiring senator: “As you think of what to put in your memoir, I would only ask one thing: Please, go easy on us.”
As Snowe leaves the Senate, she’s starting work on a book that she hopes can contribute to moving Congress to be more productive.
“I’m not out to attack people,” she said. “My goal is to show by example how it has worked and how it can work again. I’ve had so many people ask me, ‘How did it work? Was it different?’”
It’s not that Congress was never the site of highly charged debate and intense rivalries, Snowe said. But the Senate has lost its way as a place where members solve problems. Instead, politics takes over.
“To argue for the sake of arguing so you can take it to the next election has no benefit to the country,” Snowe said. “I’ve been highly dissatisfied the last few years that our efforts have been stymied to have a full exploration of the issues on the floor of the Senate. They’ve all been deferred. Why do we have a fiscal cliff? When we returned from the election, we had 42 days essentially for the crucial issues of our time.”
In addition to starting her book, Snowe is using her remaining campaign funds to start a leadership institute for young women and a political action committee, Olympia’s List, to support centrist candidates from both parties.
The PAC didn’t participate in the 2012 election cycle, but Snowe used some of her campaign funds to support the Republicans running for both of Maine’s U.S. House seats, her former staffer Kevin Raye in the 2nd District and former state Sen. Jon Courtney in the 1st District. Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a former Snowe staffer and the Republican running to replace her, received no support from Snowe after he refused to endorse her over a more conservative Republican primary challenger when she was still weighing a re-election bid.
At the state level, Snowe contributed more than $18,000 personally — a Roll Call analysis this year labeled Snowe the 36th-wealthiest member of Congress with an estimated net worth of $9.01 million — and through her campaign fund to a slate of Republican legislative candidates, the Maine Republican Party and a handful of Republican political action committees.
Olympia’s List will “support consensus builders on both sides because I think that is important,” Snowe said. “You’ve got to have both sides working together. We have to return to the essence of what public service is all about, and that’s problem solving.”