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Olympia Snowe's healthcare vote: unabashedly independent

Olympia Snowe was the only Republican to vote Tuesday for the Senate Finance Committee's healthcare bill. This is not the first time she has broken with her party.

By Staff writer / October 13, 2009

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, left, shakes hands with committee member Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, on Tuesday, on Capitol Hill in Washington, after a committee vote regarding the health care reform bill.

Charles Dharapak / AP

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Olympia Snowe is a meticulous and independent lawmaker whose Senate votes have seldom been driven by party ideology. In that sense, the Republican’s “yea” on the healthcare vote in the Senate Finance Committee is of a piece with the rest of her career.

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Consider, for instance, the role Senator Snowe played during the Senate’s politically-charged 1999 impeachment trial of President Clinton. She and her fellow GOP Senator from Maine, Susan Collins, pushed a motion that would have allowed the Senate to vote separately on the charges against Clinton, and the remedy to be taken in light of those charges. Such a move would have allowed lawmakers to both find him guilty and leave him in office.

When that motion did not pass, Snowe voted to aquit Mr. Clinton on the grounds that his offense did not warrant his removal from presidential office.

In 2005, she and Collins joined the so-called Gang of 14, a group of senators that helped mediate a bitter partisan dispute over President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations.

Shaped by early adversity

Snowe, born Olympia Bouchles, had a difficult early life. She was orphaned at age nine when her mother and father died within months of each other.

She was raised in Auburn, Maine, by an uncle who was a textile worker. Her uncle, too, died prematurely.

After graduating in 1969 from the University of Maine in Orono, she married Republican state legislator Peter Snowe. After his tragic death in an auto accident in 1973, she was elected to serve out his term in the Maine House of Representatives.

In 1978, she was elected to Congress as the Representative of Maine’s 2nd District, which covers the northern two-thirds of the state. In 1994, after Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine decided to not run for reelection, she ran for the US Senate and won handily, carrying every county in the state.

Seeking middle ground

As a moderate Republican of the type that used to be common in New England, she has often said that she has not changed, but her party has.

She sits just to the right of center in the Senate Finance Committee, and that position could symbolize the role she has played so far in the healthcare debate.

On the contentious issue of whether the bill should contain a government-run public insurance option, she has brokered a middle position. While opposing the inclusion of the option in the Senate Finance bill, she has supported a trigger mechanism whereby such a public option would be established if private insurers do not provide more affordable coverage.

As the only Republican to back the Senate Finance bill, Snowe provided a bit of drama on a day that otherwise might have seemed predictable. With her vote, the legislation was reported out of committee by a tally of 14-9.

“When history calls,” said Snowe, “history calls.”

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