Maine's GOP Senators Emerge As Key Deal Makers In Washington this week, Maine's Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, played a pivotal role in crafting a deal on the $789 billion stimulus package. They are part of an increasingly rare breed: moderate Republicans.
NPR logo Maine's GOP Senators Emerge As Key Deal Makers

Maine's GOP Senators Emerge As Key Deal Makers

In Maine, they're just plain Susan and Olympia.

But in Washington this week, Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were high-stakes deal makers: moderate Republicans who, with GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, gave majority Democrats the votes they needed to render President Obama's stimulus plan bulletproof.

"The time has come to bring everybody together so we can move forward," Snowe said after she and Collins flanked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, as he announced a deal on the $789 billion spending and tax-cut package.

It was a striking image.

Often, the role of party moderates in shaping legislation can be overstated.

But in this case, it was crucial, with Collins playing a particularly key role.

"I voted against the impeachment of Bill Clinton and I voted against the war — but it didn't make a damn bit of difference," says former Rep. Amory Houghton, a New York Republican who retired in 2005.

"These three people did make a difference," he said.

Collins, Snowe and Specter are among five Senate members of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an organization founded by Houghton to promote a moderate, fiscally conservative approach to issues.

And though the influence they wielded in the stimulus negotiations may have been unusual, the position Maine's senators have found themselves in is not surprising.

They are, after all, an increasingly rare breed: two of only three Republicans still representing New England in Congress.

Key Voices In Stimulus Negotiations

Popular, persistent moderates in a party that has veered far right of many Yankee conservatives, Collins and Snowe have bucked former President Bush on tax cuts. They have gone against the conservative grain on social issues from federal funding of stem cell research to same-sex marriage.

Both have high ratings from the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Conservation Voters, and analyses of their Senate votes show that on big issues of the day, they are decidedly middle of the road.

They have also carved out positions of influence on money issues — Collins on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Snowe on the Finance Committee.

"Olympia and Susan are showing the independent streak that the voters of Maine knew they had when we elected them," says Karen Raye of Perry, Maine, and until recently a member of the Republican National Committee. "I might not agree with every vote they make, but they vote their conscience."

Collins was instrumental in cobbling together — with her Appropriations Committee colleague, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska — stimulus bill changes that guaranteed the support of the three "rogue" GOP senators.

Their votes, along with those of the chamber's 58 Democrats, put Senate support over the 60-vote threshold needed to forestall any effort to filibuster the package. It gave President Obama an early and big legislative win.

Little Fallout Expected At Ballot Box

Neither Snowe nor Collins will face re-election anytime soon. Snowe got 74 percent of the vote in her 2006 re-election race; her term is up in 2012. Collins easily won her third term last fall in a race that Democrats had once targeted as potentially winnable.

But their constituents back home say they don't believe that the senators' actions would have been any different had they been facing an imminent campaign — like Specter, whose fifth term expires next year and whose vote was much more politically risky.

"I don't think either of them made a political calculation," said Kevin Raye, the Republican leader in Maine's state Senate. Raye once served as Snowe's chief of staff in Washington and is married to Karen Raye.

"They're both popular and strong and came at this in a position of strength," he said. "They believe in what they felt was right for the country."

And, Raye added: "That doesn't always involve breaking with their party. It just gets more attention when they do."

Stimulus In Maine's Best Interests

Like most states, Maine is hurting. Its unemployment rate jumped from 5.5 percent to 7 percent in the last six months of 2008, and its Legislature recently passed a supplemental state budget to address a projected $166 million gap between revenue and spending through the end of the fiscal year.

"The stimulus bill will be hugely important to the state of Maine," says Christopher St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Once staunchly Republican, Maine has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. But Snowe and Collins typically run well ahead of the Democratic ticket. Last fall, Obama got 57.6 percent of the vote; Collins won with 60 percent. Democrat Al Gore won the state's 2000 presidential race with 49 percent of the vote; Snowe that year pulled in 69 percent.

St. John says that the senators' views and actions are in line with a long tradition of New England conservatives.

"I moved to Maine when Margaret Chase Smith was still alive — she was a friend of my grandfather's and I met her," said St. John, referring to the first woman elected to the U.S. House and Senate. Chase Smith, who served in Washington from 1940 to 1973, was considered a Republican in the moderate Rockefeller mode. She died in 1995 at age 97.

Fading Brand Of Republican

That brand is still alive and well in Maine, says St. John, though it has become isolated at a national level.

Indeed, many moderate Republicans — from Houghton to former Rep. Tom Davis — have been agonizing over how to make the party more welcoming to people like Snowe and Collins.

"I had arguments with Tom DeLay about this," Houghton says. "He insisted that we had to play to the base."

"I told him that his base isn't my base," he said.

Michael Steele, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, has said he supports a regional approach to reinvigorating the party.

That's fine with Kevin Raye.

"The Republican mainstream in New England is not the same as the Republican mainstream in the South, or in the Midwest," he said. "To the degree the party recognizes and respects that, the better."

Charles Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said that there are mixed feelings about the senators' stimulus vote. He, in fact, opposed it.

"But I still see them standing up for Maine, not standing with Ted Kennedy or Harry Reid," Webster said. "Neither has a record of voting against their core values."

In coming years, it will very likely be moderate Republicans in the Snowe and Collins mode that New England party leaders will be grooming if they want to win back a region that once stood for bedrock conservatism and prop up their diminishing ranks on Capitol Hill.