By Lisa Wangsness, Globe Staff | August 18, 2009
BANGOR - For many Washington lawmakers, it’s been an angry August: returning home for the summer recess, they have faced put-downs, shout-downs, and worse at the hands of some constituents seething about the proposed health care overhauls before Congress.
But Senator Olympia Snowe, a pivotal player in the health care drama, has seen nothing of the kind since she came home to Maine last week.
Mainers are treating their popular senior senator with characteristic Yankee restraint. Public meetings are respectful, protesters virtually absent. Special-interest groups on the right and the left that have helped organize mass protests elsewhere are treating Snowe gingerly. Even President Obama mentioned how much he likes her at a town hall meeting he held in Portsmouth, N.H. - just close enough to Maine to get her attention without seeming too aggressive.
No one, it seems, wants to risk offending the slight, genial senator who is one of the most influential voices in the Senate in deciding whether a health overhaul bill passes.
Snowe is one of three Republicans on the powerful Senate Finance Committee trying to work out a bipartisan deal. And based on her voting record, she is the most likely of the trio to break from the GOP and vote with Senate Democrats - who may need at least one Republican to get a bill passed, especially if Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, is unable to travel to Washington and cast a vote in the fall.
Snowe met with Obama twice the week before the August recess, and she has plans for several major conference calls on health care with the other Finance Committee negotiators. She also shares a state with Senator Susan Collins, another moderate Republican who could be a crucial vote on any compromise that emerges.
“Maine is ground zero for health care,’’ said Dennis Rivera, chairman of health care for one of country’s most powerful unions, the SEIU, who flew to Maine to speak at a recent event in Auburn.
Snowe has not held any open meetings on health care recently, but protesters in Maine have not crashed her public events, as they have other lawmakers’ elsewhere. The free market group Americans for Prosperity has held a few events in the state, but the state’s primary conservative group, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, is focusing on arguing its case in white papers and meeting with Snowe directly and with her staff. On the left, the SEIU has a dozen operatives on the ground in Maine; they and other liberal groups held a large rally for health overhaul legislation earlier in the summer, but they are mostly focused on getting Mainers to tell their personal health care stories to the delegation in handwritten letters, press conferences, and meetings.
Unlike many Republicans, Snowe, 62, has said she sees the need for federal action on health care.
Maine delved into its own health care experiment, attempting to expand health coverage aggressively, before Massachusetts passed its landmark coverage law in 2006. But its insurance marketplace has little private competition and premiums remain sky-high. Maine’s population is small, old, poor, and largely rural, and though the state has enacted strict rules preventing insurers from discriminating against sick people, it has not required individuals to buy insurance. A standard PPO plan for a family of four, with low deductibles, costs more than $20,000 a year.
“We have to stop this pernicious trend,’’ Snowe told small business owners in Bangor last week. “Clearly it’s a time of desperation for so many people that this is not an issue we can overlook or ignore or underestimate.’’
Yet she was instrumental in getting the White House and Democratic leaders to relent on a self-imposed August deadline for passage of health care legislation - a timetable she dismissed as “artificial.’’ And in recent days she has questioned the need for speeding action in September, as well. Hastily cobbled-together plans worry her, she said. She appears wary of doing too much too fast, and talks about the importance of “fine-tuning.’’
“I think you have to systematically address the political realities as well as the policy realities, and sort of craft it through that prism,’’ she said in a brief interview in Portland last week. “So every time we’re working on an issue, I always want to remind myself what is going to be realistic, what is possible here, rather than just sort of expanding the boundaries in a way that’s just not possible at this time.’’
Snowe’s popularity at home affords her a wide berth for making up her own mind. Her approval ratings hover between 70 and 80 percent; she has never lost a race since winning the State House seat left vacant by the death of her first husband in 1973; she won’t face reelection until 2012. Maine’s political parties are relatively weak, and she is beholden to neither; her nonideological approach adheres to the political formula adopted by successful senators from Maine for 60 years, from Margaret Chase Smith to George Mitchell to the state’s junior senator, Susan Collins, said Christian Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College.
“All of them have played on the national stage, and all of them, for most of their careers, have sat in the middle and eschewed the people on the right and the left,’’ he said.
The positions Snowe has staked out on health care have set the course for the bipartisan talks, even as they have exasperated Democrats who want drastic change and Republicans who want none. She is wary of too much government involvement. She said she would consider a public insurance option, but only as a “fallback’’ if private insurers fail to rein in premium costs. She is skeptical of imposing financial penalties on employers if they do not give workers insurance. But she does see the need for requiring all citizens to obtain insurance and creating government subsidies to help those who can’t afford health care.
“She’s not being doctrinaire, she’s trying to figure out with a degree of independence what makes the most sense,’’ said David Clough, the longtime director of the Maine chapter of the small business lobby, the National Federation of Independent Business, which clearly has her ear.
Snowe also knows many of the people she represents. Maine is like a “big small town.’’ She talks with her neighbors in the long hours she spends at airports traveling to and from Washington nearly every weekend. She has spent years doing “Main Street tours’’ to hear from people in grocery stores and corner shops.
“You can’t be in that bubble and be totally out of tune with what’s being said on Main Street,’’ she said.
Over the years, the Snowe brand has become synonymous with old-fashioned reliability. At a forum for small business owners in Bangor last week, real estate company owner Earl Black, a Republican, asked whether she might hold a forum on health care soon. Snowe said she would, once the Finance Committee negotiators reach a compromise and there were real details to discuss. Black nodded, satisfied; everyone else seemed to be, too.
“When I got up and started to speak, I said, ‘Olympia,’ because that’s how I know her,’’ he explained later. As for the shouting that has greeted senators elsewhere, Black shook his head. “I don’t think anyone in this room would even think of treating her that way.’’
Snowe said with a laugh: “I’m not surprised. It’s Maine, you know? People are reasonable.’’