Sen. Snowe On Health Care Overhaul

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a member of the bipartisan gang of six, may be the one Republican who votes for a health care bill in the Senate. "What we have to do is develop a plan that's going to be available to people on an affordable basis, and, secondly, containing costs both for the American consumer and the American taxpayer," Snowe says.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

These days, no one seems terribly happy about the ongoing health care debate. Republicans reject, Democrats threaten, bipartisanship seems to be off the table. But the Senate's so-called Gang of Six is still at the table. They're the three Democrats and three Republicans working on a compromise bill. The pressure is nothing new to the only woman in the group, Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine.

NPR's Audie Cornish has this profile.

AUDIE CORNISH: Of all the senators tapped to be part of the Gang of Six, Olympia Snowe is the most obvious choice. She's derided by conservatives as a rhino: a Republican in name only for siding with Democrats on key votes.

In a 2006 interview with NPR's MORNING EDITION, she shrugged off the criticism.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): I think Maine has been naturally independent. Oftentimes, I tell my leadership, don't blame me, it's just where I grew up.

CORNISH: Not much has changed since then. Snowe joined her colleague from Maine, Susan Collins, and Pennsylvania's then Republican Senator Arlen Specter, in casting the deciding votes on the economic stimulus package.

Now she is again one of just three Republicans in the bipartisan group from the Senate Finance Committee trying to put together a bill. We caught up with her by phone as she headed back home to Falmouth.

Sen. SNOWE: I think sometimes, yes, I'd find myself in that position, you know, with fewer and fewer, you know, people who are willing to reach across the political aisle and to create what I, you know, call the sensible center. I mean, that's where the majority of Americans are. And I try to sort of build those, you know, bridges.

CORNISH: Political science professor, Chris Potholm, of Maine's Bowdoin College, says Snowe can afford to do that because she's one of the most popular politicians in Maine's history.

Professor CHRIS POTHOLM (Political Science, Bowdoin College): She's one of the few senators in the country that's completely impervious to challenges from the right or the left.

CORNISH: Snowe won her last election with 74 percent of the vote. Moreover, Potholm says that casting these deciding votes has earned Snowe some clout.

Prof. POTHOLM: When Obama turned to her during the stimulus debates, I think she discovered that there were some people on his staff that would listen to her. I think she saw a place for her moderate view of: let's see what works. And I think the Obama people would certainly be reaching out to her as someone for whom they could make common cause.

CORNISH: Snowe says the bipartisan group has heard plenty of criticism from constituents who oppose a health care overhaul. But the proposals are too confusing, too costly and insert too much government in the health system. But there is also a lot of misinformation about what the senators are considering, and Snowe says the group shouldn't let that deter negotiations.

Sen. SNOWE: That is a concern. I mean, because obviously, we have not finalized our package. We've had various components that we have considered, but we have not yet assembled the package. I sort of compare it to 1,000-piece puzzle. You know, we've got the 1,000 pieces, but we have not put it together.

CORNISH: Snowe is the only one in the Gang of Six representing a state that has tried out universal health care. The state of Maine created a public insurance option in 2003 that hasn't necessarily been a success story. It has not been able to compete with private insurers and it has not kept costs down or premiums low.

Its supporters argue that concessions to the insurance industry made the program too weak to compete. Opponents say the state's sickest patients packed into the program, driving up premiums. That colors the senator's view on the health care overhaul.

Sen. SNOWE: What we have to do is develop a plan that's going to be - you know, available to people on affordable basis. And secondly, containing costs both for the American consumer and the American taxpayer.

CORNISH: Snowe says the bipartisan group has moved away from offering a public insurance option and moved toward an option based on the regional health cooperatives found in the Midwest. And they are more determined than ever to present something less expensive than the House proposal, which is estimated to cost a trillion dollars over the next 10 years.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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