Democrats Hope Snowe Will Vote Yes on Health Reform

The Republican senator could be the swing vote on a healthcare overhaul.

By + More

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, hasn't endorsed Sen. Max Baucus's healthcare bill. But she hasn't said she will vote against it, either.

Since debate over the bill began in the Senate Finance Committee last week, Snowe has been fairly tight-lipped. Unlike many of her Republican colleagues, she hasn't criticized the bill as a "government takeover." Nor has she questioned Democrats' motives.

Democrats are watching her closely. Assuming the bill successfully gets out of committee, they will need 60 votes to block a Republican filibuster in the Senate. They are currently short of that number. So far, the Finance Committee debate, which lasted all last week and picked up again Tuesday, has been highly partisan and laborious, all but snuffing out the possibility that any Republican other than Snowe will cross party lines to vote for the bill.

At times, Snowe has praised Baucus for his bipartisan effort, applauded his proposal to block insurers from discriminating against people because of gender or health status, and spoken passionately of her worries if reform does not pass. "The system is fundamentally flawed and broken," she said, noting that 10 million more Americans have become uninsured since 1993, when Congress last failed on health reform.

On at least three occasions, in fact, she has broken ranks with Republicans to vote with Democrats on amendments. Snowe voted Wednesday with Democrats to reject a proposal by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, to add new anti-abortion provisions to the bill. Democrats warned that Hatch's amendment would wind up making it harder for women to get private insurance coverage for abortions and argued that the bill already restricts the use of taxpayer dollars for abortions.

In another case, last week, Republicans wanted to strike a Democratic provision that would create an independent, nonpartisan commission to propose and make Medicare cuts. Democrats say the commission will cut waste; Republicans warn it will ration care. Snowe sided with Democrats.

But she also has had some harsh words for them. She's concerned that the bill, by imposing a penalty on families if they fail to buy health insurance, would unduly burden those with lower incomes. She's also been bothered by the pace at which Democrats are trying to move. "It took a year and a half to pass Medicare to cover 20 million seniors," Snowe said. "We simply cannot address one sixth of our economy in a matter of such personal and financial significance for every American on a legislative fast track."

Last week, in a particularly lengthy and heated argument among committee members, Snowe sided with Republicans who said the bill should undergo a complete two-week analysis by the Congressional Budget Office before the committee votes on it. Democrats cried foul, saying the move was simply a delaying tactic and unnecessary, since the CBO can perform an accurate draft analysis in a much shorter time. Snowe replied quizzically, "I truly do not understand the skepticism about this request. If it takes two more weeks, it takes two more weeks."

The committee is attempting to get through the more than 500 amendments that have been submitted. Among those are some—including affordability provisions—that Snowe has suggested must be part of the bill for her to vote yes. Baucus has indicated he'd like to finish debate and vote on his bill by the end of the week.