A month ago, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R., Me.) was the lone Republican to vote in support of the Senate Finance Committee’s health-care bill. At the time, liberals cheered, though Snowe cautioned that her vote then did not “forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.”
Well, tomorrow has come. On Saturday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its own version of Obamacare by a 220-215 vote. Now, with that bill punted to the Senate, Snowe is back in the spotlight. Will she vote with the Democrats again?
Just wait a minute, Snowe told NRO on Tuesday outside of the Senate chamber. A decision on whether she’ll be one of the 60 votes the Democrats need to pass their bill is a long way off. Still, she says, she looks forward to playing an important role in shaping health-care legislation.
First, Snowe tells us that she is concerned about the “breadth and scope” of the House’s health-care bill. “I won’t come on board with that bill,” she says. “It goes far beyond the bounds of what I’d think we’d find acceptable in the Senate. There’s no question that the Finance Committee’s bill is the only one that comes close to achieving any cost savings.”
Her chief concerns, she says, are the House bill’s stipulations for employer mandates and its potential to lead to staggering new taxes. She’s also uneasy about how such legislation will affect small businesses, and “business in general, given the state of the economy.” These are “perilous times,” she says. “We cannot be imposing new taxes on American businesses.”
The “trigger option,” she says, is another issue she wants to continue to pursue. That’s a proposal under which states would be allowed to offer a public option if insurance companies failed to offer affordable plans. “I did support the ‘trigger’ as a fallback in the event that the insurance industry didn’t offer up affordable choices,” says Snowe, before cautioning that she “has not supported the public option before” and that she still “does not want the public option at the forefront.” Don’t expect her, however, to budge on the trigger. “I come from a state that has been a victim of the insurance industry,” she says. “We’re well familiar with the egregious approaches that have been to the detriment of the well-being of people in Maine.”
Democrats, says Snowe, should also not try to rush the debate on the Senate floor. Waiting till 2010 for a vote, she says, would be appropriate. “I just don’t think it’s surprising as to how long this takes,” says Snowe. “Just having been part of the Senate Finance Committee process for as long as I have, I know that this is too complex and too interwoven to give a judgment without giving [the bill] the full evaluation it deserves.”
Besides, she says, if the debate is given enough time to flesh out all aspects of the bill, then a bipartisan compromise is still possible. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with Democratic centrists,” says Snowe. “I’ve been working with them on different areas, including the trigger and other alternatives. We’ve all been having conversations because we share many of the same issues and problems with the legislation, especially on the public option and how you proceed in the United States Senate given the fact that it’s going to be in there as an opt-out. We certainly do coalesce around some things and try to find common ground. We’re having constant discussions, virtually every day, on a variety of fronts.” Asked by NRO to name the Democrats on her speed-dial, Snowe smiles, and says, “I’ll let you guess.” (Possibilities: Democratic senators like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Evan Bayh of Indiana.)
“We can’t be handcuffed going to the floor,” says Snowe. “We’re trying to sort this through and make it a better bill. It’s going to be a lengthy debate. There’s not going to be any way of short-circuiting the process when it comes to analyzing all of the amendments that are going to be offered. That’s the nature of this issue, as it should be. It requires a considerable amount of time. We need to give this the time it deserves. That’s what the Founding Fathers wanted, that’s what the Senate’s all about: having a very deliberative process.”
Will other Republican senators be as open to crossing the aisle? “There might be others,” says Snowe. In the meantime, Snowe is being fully courted by the White House and senior Senate Democrats. Even former president Bill Clinton, who spoke to the Democratic caucus at the Senate on Tuesday, stopped to say hello to Snowe. “I’ve had conversations with the White House, but not the president,” Snowe tells us. “I did speak recently to [HHS] Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius. We met the other day for breakfast.”
Such one-on-ones with top Democrats are not unusual for the Maine Republican. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, tells NRO that by continuing to talk to her, Democrats can make inroads, “to see if we can find some common ground.” On the public option, Schumer says that at this point, “what she has proposed is far apart from what most Democrats want, but maybe there’s a way to come together.”
With Snowe back at the center of the Senate health-care debate, other Republicans are also being very diplomatic in their approach. If they want to block Obamacare, they’ll almost surely need her vote. Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) tells NRO that he’s “not sure what her current thinking is with regard to the public option with the trigger,” but, he says, “the legislation and the process has evolved to where I think the Democrats have sort of broken trust with her on some issues between when they passed it on the Finance Committee and now with them writing it in secret. She hasn’t been a part of that discussion so I don’t know, we’ll see. We’ll do everything we can to make sure that we don’t lose people on some of these key issues.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), the Senate minority leader, agrees. Senator Snowe has “kept me informed throughout the process,” says McConnell. “She has deep reservations about the bill. I think where she ends up at the end will depend on the substance of the measure.” On the trigger option, “she’ll have to speak for herself,” he says. “She’s been involved with this process from the beginning to the end,” adds McConnell. “She’s a very thoughtful member and we’re hopeful that at the end of the day she will share the view of the rest of the caucus.”
“Look, the administration is probably looking to pick somebody off,” says Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.), to “try and make the claim that they’re being bipartisan. That means nothing about bipartisanship. My hope is that she’ll look carefully at the bill, study it, and give her best view of what the bill is about.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), head of the Senate Republican Conference, concurs. He slathered on the praise, in a conversation with NRO. “She’s a very important and valued member of the Republican conference,” says Alexander. “We see her every day and listen to what she has to say.”
And, Snowe tells us, she’ll make sure to let both sides know her concerns. “I will continue to offer my views and to address issues within whatever version is introduced in the Senate to make it better, irrespective of where I stand on the final version,” says Snowe. “I think that’s my role and I will attempt to contribute in that fashion.”
But, with all of the compliments and talk, no one in the Senate seems to know which side she’ll end up on.
“You know, you guys have talked to her a whole lot more about it than I have,” laughs Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.). “I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.