WASHINGTON — Since 1979, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe has been representing the interests of the people of Maine in the U.S. Congress. Her performance has been marked by consistently high ratings among her colleagues on Capitol Hill, as well as by the overwhelming endorsement of the Mainers who elect her. In each of her congressional elections — first to the House of Representatives and then, in 1994, to the Senate — she has cruised to easy victory.
But in all her years of service, never has Snowe’s presence in Washington been so pivotal as it has been in the past six months during the attempt to transform the nation’s health care system. And never has she enjoyed — or endured — so great a measure of the public spotlight.
Identified early on as the only Senate Republican likely to endorse the contentious and vastly complex health reform legislation that will emerge this coming week from the Senate Finance Committee, Snowe has been wooed by Republicans and Democrats alike, sought out by powerful lobbyists, consulted by the president, and highlighted and quoted in hundreds of print and broadcast news reports.
“She is one of the best legislators in Congress,” said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana. “This legislation contains a number of measures when her backing has made a big difference.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Snowe has worked hard to develop bipartisan support for the health reform legislation. Her meticulous approach to the process “has brought greater consideration of what we’re doing and shed greater light on the issues,” he said.
Despite their significant political differences, Grassley said, “I appreciate her tenacity.”
Snowe is getting a lot of credit these days for her efforts to bring bipartisan support to an issue that will affect every American and an estimated 16 percent of the national economy.
But Mark Brewer, professor of political science at the University of Maine and an expert in political behavior and partisanship, says it’s just business as usual for Snowe, who is remaining true to her moderate Republican roots.
“She has always been driven by what she sees is best for her constituents in Maine, rather than by any party or ideology,” Brewer said Friday. While her refusal to champion the pet causes of either party may cost her some support among Maine voters, Brewer said Snowe’s political future is secure.
“I would expect that Democrats and Republicans in Maine who have supported Snowe and voted for her in the past would be pretty happy that she’s been willing to do something no other Republican in the Senate has been willing to do,” he said, “That is, to hold out the possibility of major health care reform.”
‘My party has changed’
Snowe maintains that her political foundation has not changed since 1973, when she first was elected to the Maine House of Representatives to serve out the term of her husband, Peter Snowe, who was killed in a motor vehicle accident.
“I am the same today as when I first ran in terms of my foundational beliefs,” she said last week in an interview outside the Senate Finance Committee room. “I don’t feel I’ve deviated. But my party has changed.”
Her core political values include limiting the size and scope of government, maintaining a strong national defense, and upholding individual responsibilities and opportunities, she said.
“That is what the Republican Party is all about, should be all about — but hasn’t been all about,” she said.
Snowe has broken ranks with more conservative Republicans on a number of hot-button issues, including abortion, stem cell research and some environmental measures, including drilling for oil in Alaska.
She says Republicans lost the majority in Congress last November because they lost touch with essential principles such as fiscal conservatism, pay-as-you-go budgeting and responsible tax policy.
“I’m all for tax cuts, but there’s a limit of how far you can go, especially when you’re at war,” she said, referring to controversial tax breaks enacted during the administration of former President George W. Bush, despite the escalating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And while she generally supports limiting the role government plays in American life in favor of the private sector, Snowe said big national issues such as health care reform rightly challenge that position.
Take, for example, her position on the “public option” — a government-sponsored health insurance program that would compete with private companies. In step with her Republican colleagues, Snowe has rejected an across-the-board public option as inherently unwieldy and intrusive into the private insurance market.
But alone among her colleagues, she has supported the inclusion of a “triggered” public option, a last-resort measure that would take effect in states where private insurers fail to provide policies that low- and middle-income residents can afford.
“Can government do it better?” she asked. “Are there times when government needs to play a role? Maybe.”
The triggered public option has not found its way into the Finance Committee bill, but Snowe said she is waiting for the right time to introduce it — perhaps as the bill is merged with legislation released earlier this year by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or perhaps when the resultant Senate bill is combined with health care reform legislation approved in the House of Representatives.
In addition to serving on the Finance Committee, Snowe also sits on the Select Committee on Intelligence; the Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation; and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
Former Maine Gov. Angus King, a political independent and businessman, said Friday that health care reform is essential to the nation’s business sector. American businesses are heavily affected by the spiraling cost of providing health insurance to their workers, affecting their ability to compete, he said.
Additionally, he said, state budgets are under great strain from costs associated with the Medicaid program.
King, who has known Snowe for 30 years, said, “She has not ever been in as tough a position is she is now or as important a position.”
“She is one of the most conscientious people I have ever known, and she really wants to do the right thing,” King said. “The pressure she is under must be ferocious.”
Working on amendments
Last week, seated with her colleagues on the raised dais of the Finance Committee room, Snowe — who sits just to the right of center — kept her head down and appeared absorbed in the job at hand. While others on the committee debated, staking out often-predictable, partisan territory, she continually pored over the stack of documents before her, cross-referencing one to another, swiveling around in her seat to hold urgent, animated, whispered consultations with her staff before she casts her vote.
“I want to be sure I fully understand these amendments,” she explained later. “In my view, there is nothing routine about these issues. I try never to lock myself down philosophically. … I try to keep an open mind on the issues that come before us. You really have to give it your all, which is what I’m attempting to do.”
From time to time during the deliberations, Chairman Baucus left his seat, walked over to Snowe and squatted down on his heels, bringing his head level with hers for a private, off-microphone conversation.
Baucus said Snowe has set a high standard in the health care policy debate.
“She asks a lot of very good questions, and she is always extremely well prepared,” he said in a telephone interview. “She’s never satisfied with the first level of questions; she wants to know more.”
Baucus said Snowe is known on the committee for “digging deep into the weeds” and asking experts among the committee staff for more details or a bigger-picture take on the implications of an issue.
“She’s famous for always saying, ‘I want to understand this,’” Baucus said. “And I’m glad she does, because it really helps the rest of the committee.”
When the draft health care reform bill was unveiled on Sept. 22, Snowe delivered a lengthy statement in the committee room detailing the measure’s strengths and weaknesses. She praised Baucus and Grassley for attempting to “achieve consensus on common-sense legislation that builds on the best components of health care today.” But she criticized the timeline pressure — originating with congressional Democrats and the Obama White House — under which the legislation was developed.
“Let us recall, it took a year and a half to pass Medicare to cover 20 million seniors, so we simply cannot address one-sixth of our economy — and a matter of such personal and financial significance to every American — on a legislative fast track,” she said.
Snowe does not speak often in hearings, but when she does, she is typically forceful and concise.
“She’s usually pretty quiet,” commented a reporter during the deliberations in the Finance Committee. “But when she says something, everybody listens.”
Arguing against a Democratic amendment that would strengthen penalties on individuals who do not purchase private insurance coverage — supposedly made more affordable by the health care reform bill — Snowe, who on general principle does not support an individual mandate, neither minced words nor disguised her impatience.
“We have an enormous responsibility … to be sure there is affordable coverage for people,” she said, leaning forward and gesturing to intensify her point. “I do not want people to have to pay this very onerous penalty. The pressure should be on government to be sure the plans are there. The onus should be on the U.S. government, on Congress.”
The offending amendment was set aside. After an afternoon break, it emerged transformed, reintroduced by its original sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
“Mr. Chairman, this is now a Schumer-Snowe amendment,” Schumer informed Baucus.
“Oh, aren’t you good,” Baucus responded, shaking his head and grinning. “Are you sure it isn’t a Snowe-Schumer amendment?” The rewritten measure not only defined insurance affordability more stringently; it also phased in milder penalties over a period of years for those who still don’t purchase coverage. While most committee Republicans still turned it down, it passed with the approval of all 13 Democrats — and Snowe.
Snowe’s endorsement of the final health care reform package — still months away, although the Finance Committee is due to vote on its own version this coming Tuesday — has been viewed as crucial to the passage of the legislation. Now, with Democrats likely to have the 60 votes needed to prevent a Republican filibuster in the Senate, her vote is still ardently sought for the patina of bipartisanship it would confer.
“If she is the only Republican, I don’t think it will mean that much,” UMaine professor Brewer said. “It’s token bipartisanship at best.” If, though, Snowe’s vote provides cover for other Republicans to support the measure, he said, the bipartisan claim would be more meaningful. Pressed to speculate, Brewer could not name any other Senate Republican likely to make the jump — except, perhaps, Maine’s other U.S. senator, Susan Collins.
Grassley called Snowe “a good friend.” But, he said, their politics differ significantly on health care and other issues.
“I’m a conservative Republican,” Grassley said. “Senator Snowe and I don’t agree too often, but she and I are always candid and straightforward with each other.”
Grassley, who worked behind the scenes with Snowe to develop the health care legislation in a bipartisan group known as the Gang of Six, said Snowe was “meticulous” in her approach — insisting on getting a clear measure of the cost of the reform and that the final version of the amended committee bill be available for members to read before a vote is taken.
“Over and over again, she argued forcibly that the time should be taken to get it right,” he said.
Grassley, who said Baucus fast-tracked the committee process under pressure from the White House, said he doubts he will vote for the measure. Because he is unhappy with the emerging bill’s handling of health care for illegal immigrants, the inclusion of the individual mandate, and other issues, “as of now, I can’t support it,” he said.
Snowe said she gets frustrated by the “political polemics” in Congress. Instead of “constant bickering and fighting” and strategizing to win elections, she said politicians should work together to find solutions.
“In an issue at this level, that affects everybody personally and financially, everybody has very strong opinions about certain changes we should enact,” she said. “It’s become a political game in Washington, not about trying to find solutions. … Everyone should be wrestling with this. It’s not cut and dried. It’s not absolute. You can’t be absolute and try to solve the problems of this country. I’m amazed that some people can see it in such clear political terms.”
Growing up in Auburn
Throughout her public service career, Snowe has consistently concerned herself with health care issues, including efforts to curb inflationary hospital spending, increase Medicare payments to rural hospitals, improve the regulation of home care agencies and nursing homes, and improve the quality of breast cancer treatment. In 1981, she was the leader of the Gypsy Moths, a group of Republicans from the Northeast and Midwestern states who banded together to successfully oppose drastic cuts in social programs being proposed by the Reagan administration.
She also has been a champion of gender equality in the workplace.
Snowe’s interest in these issues has deep roots. She lost her mother to cancer when she was 8, and her father died of heart disease a year later. Her father, a Greek immigrant, had worked as a cook. Her mother was the child of Greek immigrants.
Snowe was raised in Auburn by an aunt and uncle with five children of their own. The uncle, a barber, died while Snowe was in high school. Her aunt supported the family by working nights at a textile mill in Lewiston.
“Physically, emotionally, financially — how did they manage? I really do not know,” Snowe said last week, recalling those hard times. “As a young child, the experience of being without never leaves you.”
The prospect of falling seriously ill and not having health insurance is “a basic fear and a dread,” she said, and the rising rate of personal bankruptcies related to health crises illustrates how illness can devastate families. The need to transform the nation’s health care system is immediate and profound, Snowe said.
“We’ll always have political differences to overcome; we just have to keep working the issues,” she said. “I want to demonstrate that we [in Congress] have the capacity to solve problems. That’s what gets me up every day, wondering how are we going to solve this. And that’s a really good question with health care.”