Healthcare holdouts: Will Olympia Snowe be the 60th vote?

The moderate senator, who met with Obama Thursday, could provide the key vote in passing healthcare legislation. But he has yet to secure her support.

Pat Wellenbach/AP
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine was the only Republican on the Senate Finance Committee to vote to advance healthcare legislation. She met this week with President Obama, who'd like her to join majority Democrats in passing a healthcare bill.

Between his Thursday a.m. intelligence briefing and boarding Air Force One for Copenhagen, President Obama found two hours to talk with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine – his best, if not only, GOP prospect to vote with Democrats on healthcare reform.

With Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska still on the fence on his vote, Democrats may need her as their critical 60th vote. But so far, even all that presidential face time has yet to secure her support.

“We should have more time to work through the issues and to review the [draft bill] in a way consistent with the US Senate as an institution,” she says. “Why not use January as a way to continue to build consensus: Take a pause. Cool the passions.”

The three-term senator has made a career of tipping big votes, often crossing party lines to do so. Her opposition forced the Bush administration to scale down its tax cuts. Her opposition derailed President Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security. One of only three Republicans to back the Obama stimulus plan, Snowe used her vote to hold the package to $787 billion.

But she’s also known for a rare capacity to work well across party lines, winning her the conservative critics who dub her a RINO, “Republican in Name Only.” It hasn’t hurt her in Maine, where she won her last race in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote.

Her negotiating style is genial but firm. Colleagues say she bends but does not break. Most of all, she enjoys the coin of the realm in the US Senate – the trust of other senators.

Some ex-holdouts have already negotiated deals for their home states. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana told reporters that she had secured $300 million in federal aid for her state. Snowe says that the issue never came up in her discussions with the president.

“We haven’t talked about such issues,” she says. “I haven’t asked for any promises. I’ve expressed my concerns.”

Her main concern is how the bill will rein in soaring healthcare costs. The draft bill already has expanded beyond the size and scope of the plan she voted to support in the Senate Finance Committee. She’s especially wary of new tax increases and cost issues, and says that she needs to see a full score of the bill by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

“I need to see the costs of the new bill to small business and to insurance premiums for American families,” she says. “We’re all accountable now when we vote for it and thereafter. We better be sure of these answers.”

Snowe says that she’s especially concerned that a recession is the wrong time to be increasing taxes, especially for small business. “It’s going to suppress any incentive in making investments, if it increases the cost of doing business,” she says.

After respective staff left the room, Snowe describes her meeting with President Obama as very informal. “He’s welcoming and pretty organized in his thinking and his passion for the issue.

But as for getting to yes? Not yet.

“I’ve had many discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle and with the president,” she says. “I think it would be prudent to have more time to review these issues and work through the Managers Amendment,” a reference to the changes in the draft bill to be proposed by Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Saturday.

“You’ll have to cross-reference that amendment with the underlying legislation, and all that takes time,” she adds.


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