PORTLAND, Maine — Olympia Snowe may be among a shrinking number of moderate Republicans in the U.S. Senate, but she’s making no apologies for being a centrist in a party that has shifted to the right over the past couple of decades.
“It’s not healthy for the country to have parties with polar opposite views without that bridge that you need to build consensus,” Snowe told The Associated Press on Friday.
With America facing an economic crisis, lawmakers cannot remain locked in their ideological corners, said Snowe, who has represented Maine in the Senate since 1995. Instead, she recalled how she worked with President Obama to cut some of the spending from his economic stimulus package so it could win the moderate Re-publican votes needed for passage.
She lamented how the ranks of the Senate’s Republican centrists have thinned in recent elections. The latest casualties in November included Gordon Smith of Oregon and, potentially, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who trails Democrat Al Franken in a race that’s still tied up in the courts.
Those losses, Snowe said, continue a trend that became clear in 2006 when two moderates who shared a corridor with her in the Russell Office Building were unseated.
“Mike DeWine [of Ohio] was across from me and Linc Chafee [of Rhode Island] was to my right, and I was the only one that survived,” she said.
With its distinctive rules, Snowe said, the Senate is designed to build bipartisanship, putting a premium on constructive thinkers willing to work together to achieve cooperative solutions.
“It doesn’t mean abandoning your principles,” Snowe said. “It means trying to solve problems that people face in their daily lives.”
Snowe recalled how she broke ranks with former President George W. Bush by opposing Social Security privatization and a massive tax cut in 2003, drawing scorn from fellow Republicans.
Breaking from the mainstream GOP also has earned scorn from some critics including conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who calls Snowe a RINO, or Republican in Name Only. She brushed aside Limbaugh’s criticism. “He’s got a job to do, and I’ve got a job to do,” she said.
Snowe said Republicans who refuse to compromise haven’t learned the lessons of the past couple of elections. She noted that she won in 2006 and Sen. Susan Collins, her fellow Maine Republican, won in 2008 when the GOP was losing ground elsewhere. The party should take note and begin charting a new course, she said.
“It’s simple mathematics. If you want to be a broad-based party and be inclusive, you’re going to have to think about how you can appeal to all regions of the country,” she said. “We don’t want to be the party that has the smallest political tent.”
With Democrats now controlling Congress and the White House, Snowe said the remaining Republican centrists can work with like-minded Democrats such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to craft solutions that most Americans would support.
Such solutions, she said, are vital as the nation copes with the worst economic challenge since the Great Depression and the need to quickly overhaul a broken health care system whose defects can no longer be ignored.
As a member of the Finance Committee’s subcommittee on health care, Snowe expects to be in the forefront of the movement for reform. In her visit this week to Maine, she held two meetings with those involved in the system to talk about changes they would like to see.
Snowe said she’s optimistic that a health care overhaul will make it through Congress this session, calling it the best opportunity since President Clinton’s ambitious plan fizzled in 1993. Since then, she said, more than 7 million Americans have lost their health coverage, creating a new sense of urgency.
Although she is not prepared to endorse a plan offered by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Robert Bennett, R-Utah, Snowe said it contains elements worthy of support and reflects the kind of bipartisan thinking that she feels is so important.