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GOP centrists give Obama a majority – barely

This week’s Senate vote on the economic stimulus package could set the pattern in Congress.

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Maine's independent streak

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For Maine Senators Collins and Snowe, independence and a willingness to work across party lines go with the state’s GOP traditions. Former Republican Sens. Margaret Chase Smith and William Cohen, for whom both Collins and Snowe once worked, were known for their independence. (Senator Cohen also served as President Clinton’s secretary of Defense.) So were former Democratic Sens. Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Sen. Muskie's first name.]

“There is a long tradition of ignoring both the left wing of the Democratic Party and the right wing of the Republican Party. In Maine, the center holds,” says Christian Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.“The right wing in Maine plots and plans against them. They did the same for Margaret Chase Smith [and] Bill Cohen, but the far right has no real power in Maine.”

A third-term senator, Snowe won the last general election in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote. She is up for reelection next in 2012. A member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, she has made fiscal discipline her signature issue.

“Olympia Snowe anchors this agreement. She is a rock,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, who chairs the panel.

Collins: moderate to a point

In 2008, Collins bucked a strong anti-Republican tide in the Northeast to win a third term decisively with 60 percent of the vote.

Despite an ad campaign from liberal groups attacking her for her opposition to changing the rules to make it easier to organize unions, or card check, she made card check – an issue supported by President Obama – a centerpiece of her campaign.

It’s a stance that has won Collins respect from some conservative groups that oppose her on issues such as the stimulus. This week, she took the lead, with Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, in negotiating a compromise to enable the Obama stimulus plan to pass the Senate.

“There are issues where people like Collins, Snowe, and Specter don’t vote as Reagan Republicans, such as the massive [stimulus] spending program,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an antitax advocacy group. “Then, there are issues so damaging to the country and to the freedom movement that they are unforgivable. This is card check.”