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Maine senators may not like each other much, but they share love of state, job

By Martha Sherrill,

The most exasperating fact of life for a U.S. senator is not wrestling with those impossible, angry windbags across the aisle. The true test of civility is forging a relationship with that one other person who was sent to Washington to work alongside you. That unwanted sibling with whom you must share everything: a beloved home state, a prestigious job and all the voters out there in the dark.

If you happen to be members of the same party? Even worse.

Same-state rivalries abound in the Senate. And delicious tales of clashing egos and epic grudges are widely shared — doled out by insiders like pieces of Hill candy. Some of these special relationships matter more than others. For years, tensions along the border of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry fascinated Senate-watchers, because both Massachusetts patricians had such sway.

Now the complex partnership to watch is the team from Maine. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderate Republicans, are wedged into a tight political corner together. As the polarized right and left duke it out for airtime and dollars, these two women — often ignored — have unprecedented power.

Publicly, the duo is known for voting together. Lockstep. Straight down the middle. In the past 15 years, they have voted in unison on war, taxes, gays, guns, health care and the stimulus package. And when it came to the 2008 presidential election, they both went early for John McCain.

But raise their names among staffers, journalists, even other senators, and the first thing mentioned isn’t their voting record, but the wintry chill between them. Their Capitol Hill nickname, The Sisters, reflects both their public synchronicity and their private conflict.

“Did you say you were writing a dual profile — or, is that d-u-e-l?” asks Sen. Joe Lieberman with a chuckle. He is a close friend and colleague of Collins. “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Senators are only human. Why is that so easy to forget? Sometimes they seem more like statues in the park, familiar figures we walk past every day without really seeing — or knowing in depth. Snowe and Collins have cast the deciding votes on the most monumental legislation of our time, but otherwise fly under the radar and remain unexamined. In Washington, they are accorded only two attributes: They vote together and they detest each other. At a demonstration of Senate civility during the president’s State of the Union address in January, Snowe and Collins each happily crossed the aisle to sit with a Democratic colleague. But what truly would have surprised people is if they’d sat with each other instead.

Female rivalries are often exaggerated, of course. But in their case, it is real — and it doesn’t seem to have much to do with gender.

“There is something of an intramural competition between them,” William Cohen offers, completely unprompted. He is the revered former defense secretary and Maine senator for whom Collins worked for 12 years. “It’s really pretty natural. Every day you are out there, trying to justify your existence to your constituents.”

Maine has a history of sending heavyweights to the Senate — people of character, sound independence and the utmost civility. Ed Muskie, the statesman. George Mitchell, the conciliator. Or Cohen, the polymath — foreign affairs expert, novelist, poet and former basketball star.

And there’s Margaret Chase Smith, a freshman senator who in 1950 became the first Republican to take a stand against anti-communist Sen. Joe McCarthy. Her impassioned speech against blacklisting on the Senate floor, her “Declaration of Conscience,” was so dramatic that it became a TV movie starring Patricia Neal. By the time Smith left the Senate in 1972, she had alienated liberals by supporting the Vietnam War and her own party by voting against two of Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees.

Snowe and Collins each mention Smith as an important role model — and must share her daunting legacy, the way they must share so much else, particularly Mother Maine, a place they love beyond all measure. Maine, with its sharp northern light, rocky coastline, archipelago, endless tracts of inland forest and 1.3 million no-nonsense residents who love them back. In 2006, Snowe — who has never faced a primary challenger — received 74 percent of the vote in the general election. In 2008, a tough year for Northeast Republicans in Congress, Collins received 60 percent of the vote in her home state.

Amid the sensational battles in Congress, and the notorious inability of the two sides to just get along, the stories of individuals are often lost. But if the center is still holding, these two fascinating women are the reason why.

Olympia Jean Snowe

Ensconced in her richly decorated Senate office with its dark green walls and artful clutter, Olympia Jean Snowe is wearing exquisitely tailored black pants and a tweedy black jacket. Her long thin arms move gracefully. A heavy gold bracelet slides down her wrist. A chunky ruby ring punctuates a slim finger. Her dark hair is pulled back in that super-wavy ponytail, giving her a sense of having almost tamed something wild inside.

At 64, she has held elected office for more than half her life, which hasn’t been an easy one. “I’ve always wanted to serve others,” as she puts it, “to brighten people’s darkest days.”

Listening, she says, is the “key ingredient of my job.” And Snowe listens with her entire body. She leans forward emphatically in a hunch. Her head cranes into the room. Even when she is talking, she becomes The Listener, tilting your way. Making a connection, she says, is “critical to me.”

“It is about understanding the depths of people’s anger and despair,” she explains. “You know, I get angry, too. I understand the anxiety, not just in Maine but all across America. What people see in Washington now — that’s 24/7 media — is institutions that are totally incapable of grappling with the major issues of the day. I agree with that. I totally agree.”

She speaks in a warm deadpan, in long, stirring stretches. When she reads her chopped-up remarks in an article, or spliced in a TV segment, she feels misunderstood, unheard. “The camera,” she says, “doesn’t see my passion.”

She could be right. But what the camera does see is a strong, solitary figure who has been looking after herself for a long time.

She was 8 when she lost her mother to breast cancer. Her father died the next year. By then, young Olympia Bouchles had been sent from Augusta to live as a scholarship student at St. Basil’s Academy, a Greek Orthodox girls’ boarding school in Garrison, N.Y. She traveled back to Maine on the train alone, spending holidays and school breaks with her widowed aunt, Mary Goranides, a struggling Greek immigrant in Auburn with five children of her own.

As a 15-year-old summer waitress at Callahan’s Restaurant, she had to be encouraged to strike up conversations with the clientele at first, but once she got going, the owner had to ask her to stop gabbing so much. “I discovered that I liked talking to strangers,” she says, “finding out about people, what makes them tick.”

At St. Basil’s, she campaigned for dorm president — and won. She ran a straw poll for Richard Nixon in 1960. At the University of Maine, she became a political science major, but doesn’t know what attracted her to politics, except that “my mother used to write letters to the government,” she says. “So maybe she had an interest.” Snowe remembers seeing the replies to those letters — and the blue state seal of Maine at the top.

In college, she began dating her cousin’s friend Peter Snowe, who shared her love of politics. They had been married three years when he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1972, and just four months into his term, while driving along an icy stretch of the turnpike between Augusta and Lewiston, his Ford Bronco skidded and flipped over. He was killed instantly. Olympia was only 26.

“I understand when people are suffering,” she says. “My family — we didn’t have a lot. And, you know, terrible things happened. You just have to pick yourself up and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ And hopefully there are people there to help you through, one way or another. . . . In some ways, I look at my job as making it work for people. That’s what I do.”

She was an aide to freshman congressman Bill Cohen when she decided to run for her husband’s vacant seat. She consoled herself with mountains of work, and fell in love with parliamentary procedure, making motions, offering amendments, serving on committees and bringing bills to the floor. A pioneer at 31, she was the youngest Republican woman ever elected to Congress.

Four years later, she expressed interest in running for a Senate seat against George Mitchell and was told to wait. Even though Snowe thought she had a good chance of winning, the elders of the Maine GOP put their support behind a man, Rep. David Emery, who lost.

She married again, at 42, to movie-star-handsome John “Jock” McKernan, a divorced dad and fellow state congressman whom Snowe had dated for nearly a decade. Together, they became a political phenomenon. McKernan was elected governor. Snowe, still holding a seat in Congress, did double duty as first lady of Maine. She and McKernan were devoted to his only child, Peter, a star athlete at Dartmouth College. But in the winter of 1991, during a preseason workout for the baseball team, Peter suddenly lost consciousness from a previously undetected heart condition and was taken to the hospital, where he remained in a coma for nine days before he died. He was 20. His is the one death that Snowe says still haunts her.

By the time Mitchell stepped down in 1994 and she won his seat, Snowe was an easily recognized figure in the Senate, one of just eight women there. Seventeen women are in the Senate today, almost two decades later, a group that gathers regularly, a tradition started in 1992 as “power workshops” organized by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, but which relaxed eventually into monthly dinners. “We thought it was important to get to know each other as people,” says Mikulski, who arranges the events with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“We gossip, talk about our lives — everything’s off the record,” Snowe says. “And I think that’s why you don’t see us attacking and demonizing each other.”

Back in Maine, there isn’t much attacking, either. Whether they are former challengers or just random souls at snowy truck stops and wharfs, when Mainers talk about Snowe, they sound as though they are talking about an old friend. She used to be “O.J.” wherever she went, until those initials became unattractive, circa 1994. Now she’s “Olympia” — period. “She’s like Oprah,” said Liz Armstrong, an environmental lawyer in Portland. “All she needs is one name.”

Volunteers in the western town of Bethel built the world’s tallest snow woman, 122 feet tall with two pine trees for arms, and dubbed her “Olympia Snow Woman.” A tribute poem decreed:

The sun will shine upon her

And she will disappear

Nothing ever lasts forever

But her heart will stay right here.

Over Snowe’s long career in Washington, and as a member of the mighty Finance Committee, she has focused on government spending, small business and women’s issues. She relishes having leverage and being a tiebreaker. “She really knows,” says one former Senate aide, “how to make a president pull out his hair.”

In 2001, she had so many one-on-one meetings with George W. Bush as he wooed her support of his epic tax cut, that he nicknamed her “The Big O,” as if she were a mythical figure or an intangible goal. During negotiations for his stimulus bill in 2009, President Obama joked that Snowe’s office phone number was on his speed dial.

She voted for the bill — one of three Republicans to do so — after she had nitpicked, tweaked and tinkered until she had come up with ways to reduce costs by $100 billion.

“I start from scratch,” she says, describing her legislative style. “I love facts. I love memos. I am always seeking more information — and that takes time. . . . I am always challenging my own views for fear that I am getting it wrong.”

Opponents have criticized her for stalling, for foot-dragging and for finger-in-the-wind decisions. “Leaders lead,” groans a former New England congressman, a Democrat. “They aren’t the last to make up their minds.”

But voting with the Democrats has never fazed Snowe, especially after weeks of rumination. During the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1999, she hired a constitutional lawyer to advise her and went to the trial every day “taking copious notes, filling countless 8-by-14 legal pads,” says her former chief of staff, Kevin Raye, now president of the Maine Senate.

“Night after night, we would walk to the Senate parking garage together and our cars were the only two left on the lot,” Raye says. “She said to me, ‘This is a constitutional crisis. Other than a war, when you’d send your soldiers in harm’s way, what could be more important than this?’ ”

Snowe voted to acquit Clinton, on grounds that perjury alone was not reason enough to impeach a president — one of five Republicans to vote against conviction on both charges. In 2005, she voted to fund the Kyoto protocols to reduce carbon emissions. Last year, she initially supported Obama’s health-care bill but later withdrew support.

This nuanced decision making and openness to Democratic initiatives has fueled a tea party Web site called “Mainers for Snowe Removal,” which displays a photograph of the smiling senator with her head being scooped up by a giant snow shovel. Her stand on abortion, among other things, has driven Republicans to wonder why she doesn’t find a new party.

“It’s like I’m on ‘Survivor,’ ” Snowe says. “And they keep voting me off the island.”

Susan Margaret Collins

Susan Margaret Collins is more optimistic and habitually cheery than her sometimes-downbeat Senate sister. On a snowy day, she welcomes a constituent, a man in a plaid shirt and jeans, into her office for a photo and sounds like a joyful first-grade teacher leading a field trip.

“Oh my gosh,” Collins exclaims after he hands her a bumper sticker that says Maine-iac, a nickname for native Mainers. “I love it! You know, I have found these all over the world and stuck in the silliest places.”

Her voice has an unusual cadence — a quavering staccato. It seems on the verge of stalling, but never does. When concerned inquiries are made to her staff about whether this stems from a medical condition, the reply is, “No, that’s just how she talks.”

Athletic and trim, wearing a gray and black workhorse suit and low-heeled patent leather pumps, Collins seems younger than her age, 58, and her blue eyes radiate intelligence, good will and a sturdy confidence that can be infectious.

Just a building away from Snowe’s green office with its clutter of watercolors, souvenirs and crystal trophies, Collins dwells in a spare space with flags, state seals and New Englandy furnishings. The walls are midnight blue. The wainscoting is dark mahogany. The carpet is terracotta orange. A dead orchid plant sits on a shelf behind her desk.

The phone rings and it is Mitch McConnell. The minority leader is ready to hand out committee assignments for the 112th Congress. Collins slips into another room to talk to him — “in case I get bad news” — and returns five minutes later, glowing. “I got everything I wanted!” Her committee load is so heavy — Armed Services, Appropriations, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs — that it requires a special waiver of Senate rules.

Two staffers pop their heads in the door to hear the outcome and congratulate the boss. “More work for you!” she calls out, with a sing-songy laugh.

More work for Collins, too. And what could be better? She is quick to mention her love of cooking, and her cabin on a lake north of Bangor where she kayaks and spends three weeks in summer. But for the 49 other weeks of the year, she is a prodigious grind.

Never married and, like Snowe, without children, Collins is known for carrying a bulging briefcase home in the evening, for night-owl e-mails to exhausted staffers and for plunging into every bill on her desk and catching mistakes and oversights, such as the 17-word clause she spotted, inserted by an anonymous colleague in the 1999 budget, that would have kicked back $46 billion to the tobacco industry.

“She does 100 things at once,” says Steve Abbott, her former chief of staff, “goes from committee meeting, to constituent meeting, and onto another hearing, without missing a step.” She is a classic junior senator in this way: happiest when she’s trying harder.

“I truly enjoy legislating,” Collins says, pausing for a 30-minute interview, all she has time for today, before an informational meeting with Us Against Alzheimer’s. “I love bringing people together from both sides and sitting down and figuring out what ideas they have. That’s exciting for me. And that’s why I think Maine has sent me here — not to be particularly ideological, although I am proud to be a Republican, but to solve problems and to work with people who are interested in solving problems.”

When Snowe, as The Listener, describes herself as “a problem solver,” it has an emotional component, a poignancy. She would fix life if she could, to soften its blows. Collins’s connection to her work seems strategic and process-loving, as though she is talking about a puzzle she’s passionate about piecing together, or a clock she’s itching to repair.

Flinty pragmatism is a way of life where she comes from, the northern town of Caribou, population 12,000, where Collins family members have run a lumber yard for six generations and have been civic leaders for four. “My family taught me that you had no right to complain about the outcomes,” she says, “if you didn’t care enough to get involved.”

Her parents, Donald and Patricia Collins, both did turns as mayor of Caribou. Her father, as well as her grandfather and great-grandfather, served in the Maine legislature. An uncle sat on the state Supreme Court. This year, when Collins was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame on March 19, she was following a trail blazed by her mother — a longtime trustee of the University of Maine — who was inducted in 2005.

A work ethic was instilled when 9-year-old Susan was paid 30 cents for each barrel of potatoes she dug up at a neighbor’s farm. And being a middle child, the third of six, may explain her skill at collaboration.

As a young girl, she was a strong swimmer, a sailor, an honor-society-type student and a neighborhood babysitter who was legendary for her fairy tales and games. “She entertained us,” says her younger brother Sam, who runs S.W. Collins Building Supplies with their youngest brother, Gregg.

“I don’t remember Susan having conflicts with me or our other siblings,” Sam says, “or even the usual parent-daughter conflicts.” Susan taught Sam how to ride a bike, how to read, and at a lakeside camp where the Collins family spent the entire summer, she and her sisters organized the “Summer Fun Club,” a shed where, Sam says, “all the kids gravitated for meetings.”

Collins took her first airplane trip as a senior at Caribou High in 1971. A Senate youth program flew her to Washington, where she was taken to meet Maine’s two senators, Muskie and Smith. “Ed Muskie did what I do a zillion times a day,” she says, gesturing to the window where she does her photo ops. “I chatted briefly with him, had a picture taken, and then he was off to a meeting.

“But Margaret Chase Smith took me into her office and talked to me for nearly two hours,” Collins says. The oft-recounted meeting is still fueling her.

“Even though my family was very encouraging of opportunities, there were a lot of mixed messages for women in that era,” she says. “But I left her office that day thinking that a woman could do anything.”

Collins met Bill Cohen, a 32-year-old lawyer running for Congress, when he walked the entire length of Maine’s 2nd District — 650 miles — staying with different families every night. When he got to Caribou, he stopped in to see her parents. Susan, on break from St. Lawrence University, wound up driving a campaign car and the next year, she sent Cohen a letter, which he has kept all these years, asking if she could be a summer intern in his office. She arrived in the summer of 1974, when Cohen was the first Republican in the House to vote for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. The following year, after graduating magna cum laude, she moved to Washington to join his staff.

“Susan was doing pretty serious stuff, high-level Senate hearings at 26 or 27,” says Bob Tyrer, former chief of staff for Cohen and who still works with him at the Cohen Group. “By the age of 30, she had done lots of responsible things.”

A dozen years later, she returned to Maine and became a much-lauded business commissioner in Gov. McKernan’s cabinet for five years, eventually running for the vacant governor’s seat in 1994. Tension between Collins and Snowe is said to have begun at this time, after Snowe and McKernan backed another candidate in the primary. Collins was hurt — dismayed — even though the other contender had more political experience and a deeper connection to the couple.

“Susan didn’t have any great force behind her,” says Abbott, who met Collins then, “just a belief that she was the right person for the job. There was a field of eight candidates. She was the least likely to win the primary, but she did.”

In the general election, she received only 23 percent of the vote. (“I was trounced,” she likes to say.) Conservatives painted her as a liberal, pointing to her support of gay rights. But mostly, nobody knew who she was.

“I was so uncomfortable just walking up to people as a total stranger and introducing myself,” she says. “In Maine, people were always polite, but they looked at me so blankly.”

Collins was a graceful loser, but failure pushed her forward. “She bounced back,” says Tyrer, who helped run her successful Senate campaign when Cohen chose to leave two years later.

That same poise, persistence and cool-headed humility characterizes her time in the Senate. It can take two or three terms for a senator to achieve the ranking to run a high-profile hearing or investigation. But within a few months, because of strategic moves learned during her years as a Senate staffer, Collins became the first freshman senator to lead the permanent subcommittee on investigations, which had found $26 billion worth of fraud in the Medicare system. She landed on the nightly news and on the front of The Washington Post. She jumped aboard the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, too, which had been languishing and in need of a third Republican sponsor.

Before her first term was over, the former staffer had the makings of a Senate celebrity — and a Cinderella story — something that wasn’t easy for a certain senior senator who had worked her way more deliberately to the Senate, one elected office after another, and who had waited 12 years just to run for her seat. The wintry chill set in.

Collins plowed on — she always does — partly relentless, partly impervious. “Susan has been underestimated throughout her career,” Abbott says. “She doesn’t rely on charm or charisma. She gets things done by being incredibly insightful. And her work ethic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Plus, she’s just lucky. Time and time again.”

Luck or pluck? She was chosen with Sen. Lieberman to lead the crafting of the homeland security legislation after the Sept. 11 attacks, because of their close partnership and get-along-with-everybody style. “We had to take on so many people,” Collins says, “including Donald Rumsfeld, who was trying to sink the bill behind the scenes even though the president was for it.”

When she’s being undermined, she has learned to “undermine the underminer” — by finding allies and generating public support for her side. That is how she dealt with Rumsfeld, she says.

“She hung in there, all the way,” Lieberman says. “She is a real competitor, and tenacious.”

Last December, in a dramatic moment on the Senate floor, Collins took on Majority Leader Harry Reid when his strategy for repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” was tanking and he tried to blame his problems on Republicans, particularly Collins. Rather than admit that it had been a mistake to tack the repeal onto a mammoth appropriations bill, Reid sent out press releases calling Collins “disingenuous” and “inflexible” and “unreasonable in her demands.”

She confronted Reid on the floor, then huddled with Lieberman. Two hours later, they presented a stand-alone bill that called for repeal, and Collins spent the weekend phoning House and Senate colleagues to ensure support. “We wound up with more votes than I dared dream of,” she says. Repeal passed in the Senate with 65 votes. Six Republicans, including Snowe, supported it on the first count.

Getting things done on Capitol Hill — while not generating new enemies — is an art that Collins has mastered. When asked about her rules for civility, she offers them:

l “Don’t surprise people. Be open and straightforward about what you want to do.”

l “Be flexible. . . . It is like buying a plane ticket online. You can be flexible about the date and time, but your destination is the same.”

l “Don’t make a concession unless you are getting something in return. It took me a while to learn that.”

l “Your allies today may not be your allies tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay friends.”

What if there is somebody you can’t be friends with, no matter how hard you’ve tried?

Collins thinks for a second and sighs. “Like anyone in public office, I would like everybody to like me,” she says. “But after 14 years in the Senate, I’m realistic enough to know that isn’t always going to happen.

“Respect — that might be the best we can do.”

The Listener

The ground is white. The cars on the highway are caked in salt. It is February in Maine. Olympia Snowe makes a surprise visit to one of her favorite Portland haunts, Becky’s Diner on Hobson’s Wharf.

“Becky’s is a great place to pick up things,” she says. “You will get unvarnished, unfiltered comments here. People in Maine really like to share their views.”

In black pants, a gray fringed jacket and big pearl earrings, she has a sober, almost spectral quality. She’s not a chronic smiler, and as she makes her way through the crowds of constituents, she isn’t given to lobbing the feel-good icebreakers that Collins does — such as, “What a pretty sweater” or “I’m so impressed.”

At the eatery, against the acoustic backdrop of restaurant sounds — the vowelly murmuring of Maine accents, the clanking of silverware and the burbling of the lobster tank — Snowe becomes The Listener.

When she arrives at a table of diners who don’t act as though they voted for her recently — or ever — she lingers longer, digs in and gets specific. In a back booth, a husband and wife have stopped in the middle of their fruit medley to share their dark-times views, mostly about “out of control” government spending and “spiraling” Social Security costs.

Snowe is nodding, and keeps nodding. She leans in. The hunch becomes so dramatic that her head seems to be angling for its own seat at their table. In 2001, she pushed for a trigger mechanism that would use government surplus to pay off future debt. Budget deficits have been one of her bugaboos forever — a view she thought she’d have in common with the Bush administration, and was sorry to learn she didn’t.

Four guys in another booth want to confab about health care. “What happened?” one of them asks. He turns out to be an internist with a primary-care practice in Portland. He puts down his fork and stops eating his omelet, and does a headfirst dive into the nuts-and-bolts of “ObamaCare.”

Words such as “preexisting” and “individual mandate” are batted about, and “young adults being able to tag onto their parents’ plan.”

Snowe nods sincerely. “I agree with you,” she says.

Among conservatives and independents alike in Maine, her early support of Obama’s health-care plan was not popular. But the table of men she’s talking to, all Democrats, don’t seem to like the fact that she didn’t back the legislation on the Senate floor.

The conversation is polite, though. The civility in Maine is dependable, as is tolerance for opposing views. “Maine isn’t blue or red,” Snowe says, “it’s purple.” Later, two of the four men at the internist’s table say they will probably vote for her in 2012, as do two Republicans in the back. And the independent in the side room? Yep.

“I’d be so ashamed to see her removed from office,” says Vance Brown, a self-described centrist. “Ashamed for Maine. Ashamed for the country.”

“She and Susan Collins may not represent all my values and politics,” Bob Giles — half of the conservative couple who were talking to Snowe about Social Security in agonizing detail — says later, “but I am proud of how they conduct themselves and do their jobs.”

After a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin, Snowe tours a career center in Portland just a mile away, where the unemployed receive job training, help with resumes and advice about navigating the system. Every seat is filled.

She makes the rounds — nodding, hunching, listening — and asks everybody she meets how the job search is going, if they have any prospects. “Don’t get discouraged,” she says. “Keep trying, okay?”

But after 30 minutes of this, and finding more rooms upstairs filled with the unemployed, Snowe starts to look pretty grim herself. Her brow sinks, and her jaw sets. Maine had its share of problems — a dispersal of young talent, troubled textile and paper industries, the oldest population in the Northeast — long before the economy made everything worse.

“I get what people are mad about. I really do,” she says. “They feel they’ve lived by the rules and have been punished for it. Their personal security has eroded and Main Street is withering and they see no appreciable and positive change in their lives. And at a time when the financial institutions are bailed out. And they are angry about that. And I was angry, believe me. Because it meant that there were lots of people in various areas and agencies — regulators — who weren’t doing their jobs. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”

She has lived through several recessions in Maine, she says, “but this one seems to have permeated so many levels — the job market, savings, government spending, pensions, retirement. It’s so broad-based and unsettling for the country. People are reeling. Everybody. Everywhere.

“This is a major moment in America,” she says, shaking her head in disappointment, almost disgust. “No question. We are at a transcendent point. I feel it. I see it. And I am not seeing people rising to the moment. Like after 9/11, the country came together and we rose to that moment. We are in different times now. But these times deserve that kind of response. Right now. And people aren’t getting that — on the right or left.”

‘A healthy tension’

State highways are likely to be named after them, a few schools, maybe a state park. They might have to share a statue one day — The Sisters. Let’s hope they won’t mind sitting for it together.

“Do they have a professional relationship? Yes,” Bill Cohen says. “Are they close? I don’t think so.”

Pioneers in any field — male or female — are often loners, people who are driven to lead, not become part of a crowd. And conflicts between them, not unlike those between older and younger siblings, can be so deep that they are hard to define or articulate. “If you are having trouble making sense of their rivalry,” says a longtime friend of both, “it’s because it doesn’t.”

“State congressional delegations act like families,” says Cokie Roberts, who has covered the Hill for more than 30 years and whose mother and father served in Congress. “Sometimes two senators can be very close, and others engage in more than a little sibling rivalry and a few downright hate each other . . . whether they are men, women or one of each.”

Yet, civility endures between Snowe and Collins. Like Maine, it is a state they share — and a guiding principle of their lives. Last month, when the first fundraising letter for Snowe’s 2012 reelection effort was sent out, it was signed by Collins, appealing to her own supporters to give generously to Snowe.

“I have always had the utmost respect for Olympia,” Collins says, when asked to describe their relationship. “She is a fighter who cares deeply about our state and its people.”

Snowe says: “I have known Susan and her family for a long time. We work well together and combine our efforts to address Maine’s priorities. That relationship has served Mainers well, both in Maine and Washington. Oftentimes, members of our staff will travel the state together to ensure people are receiving the representation and service they deserve.”

Do they like each other? No— according to dozens interviewed. But it may not matter. And it could be too much to ask. “When I was first elected,” Lieberman says, “Christopher Dodd told me that the hardest relationship most senators have is with the senator from their own state. He hoped that wouldn’t happen to us.”

Even Cohen, so respected for his decency while serving in the Senate, jostled for attention with his same-state nemesis, Mitchell, who rose during their tenure to positions of greater power, eventually becoming the Senate majority leader in 1989.

The rivalry between the Cohen and Mitchell offices could be heated at times — and kind of pathetic. “We went to ludicrous extremes,” confesses Bob Tyrer. “If we could get an announcement in Mitchell’s hometown paper, taking credit for something he had done — ‘Cohen hails passage of blah, blah, blah . . . ’ – it was like a 12-point word in Scrabble that lands on a triple-bonus square. What’s the expression? The battle was so fierce because the stakes are so small.”

By all accounts, Snowe and Collins have not descended to such antics. Could it be because they are women? “Without question, the women in the Senate are the most collegial group of all,” Roberts says. “They are truly the last bastion of bipartisanship. They get things done, and work together — the way that men and women in Congress used to but don’t anymore.”

“In this time of prickly partisanship,” says Sen. Mikulski, “the Senate women want to be a force. We want to be functional.”

Snowe’s and Collins’s offices issue joint announcements when needed. Their staffs collaborate frequently, and sometimes discuss votes before they are made — in an effort to decide what is best for Maine. Republican organizers in the state say the senators work well together at party functions and complement each other. The animosity between them is “vastly overblown,” says Nicholas Graham, a former press secretary in the Snowe Senate office.

“It’s a healthy tension,” claims Kevin Raye, the president of the Maine Senate, “and it makes the staff better.”

Being a senator

The ground is white. The cars in the parking lot of Hampton Suites in Saco are caked with salt. At 8:30 in the morning, Collins walks out of the hotel lobby elevator. She is wearing a maroon suit that is cut like a “Star Trek” uniform and she is pushing her own luggage trolley, which is weighted down with her suitcase and an assemblage of unmatched bags and totes, as well as a pair of black snow boots.

She is not a morning person. “I mean, really not,” she says.

But how would anyone ever know? Alert and gracious, lipstick and eyeliner perfectly done. Her smile as bright as ever. Thirty minutes later, reading a book called “Antlers Forever” to second-graders at Horace Mitchell Primary School in Kittery Point, she is smooth, so polished that the kids aren’t even fidgeting. They are rapt.

Collins fires questions at them as she goes.

“Has anybody ever seen a moose?”

All hands rise.

She continues reading, and turns a page. Her voice is wobbly and sweet. When she finishes, she closes the book and sets it on her lap. She talks a little bit about being a senator, and what her job is like.

“Do you know,” she asks, “the name of the other senator from Maine?”

Dead silence.

She straightens her back a little. “You will recognize her name as soon as you hear it. I promise you will.”

Silence.

“Because,” Collins says, “she is so well known here in Maine.”

One skinny arm goes up.

“Harriet Tubman?”

“Nooo,” Collins says, with a little flutter in her voice.

Another small hand rises.

“Ruby Bridges?”

“Nooo!” Collins says with the faintest purr. “Olympia Snowe!”

Sherrill is a freelance writer.

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