Maine Senator's Vote Could Be Key in Alito Nomination

In Depth

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Monday on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), a pro-choice moderate Republican, could be a key vote. Snowe is up for re-election this year and has not shied from bucking the Bush administration.

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Here in Washington on Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito. That's President Bush's choice for the US Supreme Court. One person who's deciding how to vote is Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. She is a Republican. She's also considered a moderate who favors abortion rights, and she's been willing to challenge the Bush administration in the past. Fred Bever of Maine Public Radio reports.

FRED BEVER reporting:

At 58, Senator Snowe is following in the footsteps of the late Senator Margaret Chase Smith, another Mainer, who, as Snowe likes to note, made a habit of brandishing her independence.

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.'

BEVER: Snowe grew up in what is now the poorest state in New England and one that's greying fast. Many of her constituents rely on government programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. She's protected those interests on the Senate Finance Committee, opposing cuts in social spending, scaling back tax cuts which she says bloats the country's deficits and resisting the privatization of Social Security

Sen. SNOWE: I'm a swing vote, and I don't take that responsibility lightly. I'm trying to exercise it with caution and prudence and doing what I think is important for Maine and America.

Mr. PATRICK TOOMEY (President, Club for Growth): That's fine for her to say that, but what she really means is she's for higher taxes and more government spending.

BEVER: Patrick Toomey is president of the Club for Growth, an influential anti-tax group. At a recent meeting with conservatives in this state, Toomey said New England Republicans, like Snowe and fellow Maine Senator Susan Collins, hold disproportionate power.

Mr. TOOMEY: It gives the moderate wing quite a lot of leverage, which is kind of ironic, since they represent really quite a narrow segment of the Republican Party.

BEVER: Toomey's audience included state Senator Carol Weston. She's a conservative, but she supports Snowe's coming bid for re-election. Weston notes that Snowe is hugely popular among Mainers of all political persuasions, and in a state where Democrats control almost all statewide offices, Weston says the GOP must stay hitched to stars like Snowe and Collins.

State Senator CAROL WESTON (Republican, Maine): So I find myself at least aligning with Senator Snowe on some of the issues.

BEVER: Snowe's strength at home protects her independence in Washington, according to Bowdoin College political scientist and pollster Chris Potholm.

Mr. CHRIS POTHOLM (Bowdoin College): Independence to the point of irritating people in the White House, and I think Olympia Snowe has carved out a position in Washington where she, I wouldn't say, is impervious to everything the White House does, but she certainly has made it a method of operation that she is impervious to most of the pressure.

BEVER: That makes her a focal point in the battle over the confirmation of Judge Alito. She and Collins are two of just a few pro-choice Republican senators whose votes are considered to be up for grabs, and the advocacy groups are looking for influence. They've bought advertising time here and put troops on the ground. Kara Bilodeau(ph) is part of an anti-Alito group that recently toured the state.

Ms. KARA BILODEAU: I think that Senator Snowe and Senator Collins would be smart to listen to their constituents, 'cause they have been such advocates for abortion rights for Mainers all along.

BEVER: The tour was sponsored by national and local liberal organizations. While they aimed for telephone calls from the general public, Progress for America, which supports the Alito nomination, was seeking a different route to the senators' ears. PFA sent several of Alito's former law clerks to a Portland luncheon with key supporters of Snowe and Collins, moderates like lawyer Kenneth Cole. A former state Republican Party chairman, Cole says the clerks convinced him that Alito was not a judicial activist.

Mr. KENNETH COLE (Former Maine Republican Party Chairman): That means basically you respect precedent, and then therefore, the Roe v. Wade precedent, which is now almost 35 years old, will probably be sustained. I think that's very important.

BEVER: Snowe says her decisions on issues like judicial nominees or taxes will be governed by her belief in political moderation.

Sen. SNOWE: In some ways, it has become, on both sides of the political aisle, for whatever reasons, all or nothing. And I think we all know in our personal and professional lives, nothing's all or nothing. Both political parties really have to meet in the middle. That's where the majority of Mainers are, and if you look at the totality of America today, the majority of Americans would describe themselves as moderate or in the political center. And I think this nation can ill afford to lose the political center.

BEVER: For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever.

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