Can Sen. Snowe Save Bipartisanship on Health Care?

The White House is closely looking at Snowe's proposals on public option.

September 03, 2009, 11:43 AM

Sept. 4, 2009— -- As the health care debate grows increasingly partisan and the pressure on the White House to produce specific proposals grows, President Obama could find an ally in Sen. Olympia Snowe, the only GOP senator who has been willing to consider a government-run insurance option.

The partnership is hardly unusual. The Maine senator is considered a moderate Republican and frequently partakes in Senate bipartisanship groups.

But the former first lady of Maine is also a part of a shrinking crew of moderates who are willing to reach across the political aisle to come together on thorny issues. She was one of only three Senate Republicans to vote for the $787 billion stimulus.

Snowe, whose political career began as a representative in the House in 1973, has taken part in and initiated bipartisan talks on issues ranging from the economy to energy to health care.

In 2007, she found the Common Ground Coalition with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to build consensus among Democrats and Republicans on key political issues.

"Sen. Snowe is incredibly important in terms of what comes out from the Senate but that has to do with because she is one of the last few remaining moderates -- handful of moderates in either party," said Mark Brewer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine. "Being in that relatively small group almost by necessity means you're going to be in a position of some power in the Senate, and the fact that Sen. Snowe has been in that position for a long time, the fact that's she builds relationships, I think that... has further empowered her."

It is no surprise then that Snowe has become a leading voice in the health care debate, although her voice has been rather muted compared to some of her GOP colleagues.

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Snowe has held closed-door discussions with both lawmakers and White House officials. She has been to the White House at least three times since January to discuss health care and the stimulus, and met one-on-one with the president on July 16.

Snowe's health care proposals have become the working draft for White House's own health care proposals, which will be unveiled when Obama addresses the joint session of Congress next Wednesday.

A senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, Snowe is proposing to keep a public option as a "safety net plan" -- call it the "trigger" -- that would be offered if the private industry fails to offer affordable coverage.

Republicans have lashed out against Democrats' proposal of a government-run insurance plan, saying it would unravel the private industry. Democrats who support the plan say it will increase competition and ensure that private insurance companies are not denying citizens coverage, but even some liberals are worried about costs.

Snowe's Push for Health Care Reform

Under Snowe's proposal, which she first introduced in spring, insurance companies will not be able to deny coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions, and a government insurance plan will serve as a fallback if the private industry does not reform within a certain time period. But the plan would not be offered in areas where there is not enough competition to provide citizens with low-cost health insurance.

"This option would be available from day one in any state where -- after market and insurance reforms are implemented -- affordable, competitive plans still do not exist," Snowe said in a statement in July, following a meeting with President Obama.

The senator's aides say that alongside her work with the White House, Snowe remains committed to the "Gang of Six" -- a group of three Democrats and three Republicans senators who came together to achieve a bipartisan solution.

"Senator Snowe is committed to finding a bipartisan solution that will increase access to high-quality, affordable health care. Conversations are taking place on her safety-net fallback option as they have throughout the debate this year, as well as other approaches to make certain people have access to affordable options," said Snowe's spokesperson, Julia Wanzco.

"The Senator has had an open line of communication with the White House over the course of the past few months, and looks forward to participating in tomorrow's tele-conference call with the Gang of Six -- as the Senator's foremost goal remains to achieve bipartisan consensus among the six members of the group on a path forward for meaningful health care reform."

While Snowe may be committed to bipartisanship, two GOP members of that group have turned their rhetoric around, creating tensions with the White House. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said last weekend the Democrats' plan would cut choices for Americans and "make our nation's finances sicker without saving you money." Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has upped his criticism against the proposed public option plan.

Snowe is likely to gain the support of some other moderate Republicans, such as her colleague from Maine, Sen. Susan Collins. But it looks unlikely that the longtime senator will be able to rally other fellow Republicans on bipartisan consensus if the momentum against public option continues to build.

Most Republicans haven't received any incentives from Democrats and the White House to work towards a bipartisan solution, said Tom Davis, president and chief executive of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group representing centrist GOP lawmakers. With the midterm election approaching, "for a Republican to do this, they are chopping off an arm and a leg," the former congressman said.

Unlike many of their colleagues, Snowe and Collins hail from a state that's largely Democratic, and they do not face the same pressure from the Republican base as many of their colleagues, which Davis said could play a part in the decision-making process.

"It becomes very difficult for Republicans to meet him [Obama] halfway," Davis said. "The reality is the Republican base at this point is really down on this bill. ... It's a very tough sell."

Her close work with the White House could make Snowe, a respected voice in the Senate, subject of backlash as the debate heats up further.

"I think there will certainly be some backlash from national conservative commentators and we've seen that already at the national level," Brewer said.

In the absence of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died last week after a battle with cancer, and potentially Sen. Robert Byrd, who has been too sick to attend committee proceedings, Snowe's vote will be important. Democrats will need a Republican senator to get 60 votes if Byrd is missing for a final vote and the Massachusetts' senator seat is not filled by a Democrat.

Snowe's aides say the senator is still hopeful that discussions will continue to try and achieve bipartisan consensus. The senator has said she agrees with the president that reform should happen this year, but as Congress members return from recess next week and as criticisms from both sides grows, lawmakers could be in for a long battle ahead.

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf, Sunlen Miller and Rick Klein contributed to this report.

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