The health care reform debate that has polarized the country appears to have no middle ground, yet that’s exactly where Maine’s Sen. Olympia Snowe finds herself.
The Republican is something that has become increasingly scarce in Congress — a centrist who’s willing to work across the aisle for compromise. As such, she has played an influential role on Capitol Hill in recent years.
That role, her current committee assignment and her track record have made her the epicenter of health care reform efforts in Washington.
“I think you can argue that right now, Snowe is the most powerful single member in the United States Senate,” said L. Sandy Maisel, who teaches government at Colby College in Waterville.
Numerous national news outlets, from The Washington Post to The New York Times, Politico to CNN, have reported that the White House is in intense discussions with Snowe. Reports suggest that the administration sees Snowe’s public-option “safety net plan” as a backup to Obama’s public option.
Snowe is a member of the Senate Finance Committee and the bipartisan “gang of six” that is working on a compromise health care reform bill. Her office said Snowe continues to work with fellow senators and isn’t brokering a separate deal with the White House.
[…] political experts say Snowe may be seen as the White House’s best chance for a compromise bill.
“She, more than the others, seems to be the person who is putting politics aside and is looking for an answer,” said Maisel. “My view is that’s what the country is crying out for.” Like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, said Maisel, Snowe seeks to “not throw out the very good because you couldn’t get the perfect.”
The other Republicans in the gang may be less willing to meet in the middle, said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., is a “diehard conservative from a conservative state,” said Brewer.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has shown willingness to work across party lines and is not necessarily conservative, said Brewer, but he has a reputation for being “cranky, quirky.”
Brewer said Snowe’s work in the past with the Obama administration indicates a decent working relationship between the president and the senator.
Tarren Bragdon, director of the fiscally conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said he has been talking with Snowe’s office and he believes the news reports regarding White House conversations with the senator may be a way to pressure her on health care reform.
Snowe, said Bragdon, brings certain strengths to the debate. She comes from a state that has been “heavily regulating private insurance,” he said, so she understands the implications of “a heavy hand of state government.”
“She really is not beholden to a party ideology — she wants to have a solution that works,” said Bragdon. “It’s not about what’s the Republican position or what’s the Democratic position. It’s about what’s going to work.”
It’s clear that Snowe has gotten a lot of feedback from Mainers during her time in the state in the last month, said Bragdon. He said they have expressed a need for reform that doesn’t bust the budget or have too many unintended consequences.
Maisel said the fact that Snowe comes from a state that has tried to reform the health care system also affects her work on the federal level.
Snowe and Maine’s other senator, Republican Susan Collins, are “unassailable” at home, Maisel said, and have been able to take moderate positions in Washington.
Brewer said that if a health reform package passes and turns out to be successful, it will be part of Snowe’s legacy.