By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 16, 2009
The road to Caribou points north, deep into the cellphone-challenged northeast corner of Maine.
Just before Christmas, Susan Collins, a moderate Republican senator, was driving alone on that road, headed to her parents' home near the Canadian border in the tiny town of Caribou, when her cellphone rang. It was Joseph R. Biden Jr., the soon-to-be vice president, calling to talk up the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan.
The call kept getting cut off. Once. Twice. Three times. But Biden kept calling back.
"I was very impressed with his persistence," Collins recalled in an interview.
Less than two months later, Collins and Maine's other senator, Olympia J. Snowe, defied their party by casting two of the three Republican votes that Democrats needed Friday to pass President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan. Democrats won them over by shrinking the package, stripping some items that Republicans considered pork. The votes immediately transformed Snowe and Collins into the most unlikely of Capitol Hill power duos -- they've never been great friends -- and gave notice that sparsely populated Maine is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the national stage.
If the state, with just over 1.3 million residents, were a metropolitan area, it wouldn't be among the country's 25 biggest. It accounts for just seven-tenths of 1 percent of the votes in the presidential electoral college and four-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population.
But the new math of Obama-era politics gives Maine influence out of proportion to its size. Even though Democrats have big majorities in both houses of Congress, they fall just short of a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate. It's a situation tailor-made for moderate Republicans to become kingmakers. Collins and Snowe -- along with fellow GOP moderate Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- could hold the key to an array of Obama administration hopes, including health-care reform and further efforts to resuscitate the economy. They can make things happen, or they can stand in the way.
Their new prominence has Mainers -- get used to it, that's what they call themselves -- reminiscing about a time long, long ago when the saying went: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."
"They're bringing some veracity back to that statement," said the Rev. Robert T. Carlson of Bangor, who has worked with both senators and describes them as "classy ladies."
Collins comes from a long line of politicians -- her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the Maine Senate, and both of her parents have been mayor of Caribou, a town of 8,000 where her family has been in the lumber business since the 1840s. She learned the inner workings of Capitol Hill as a longtime Senate staffer for William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican who later served as President Bill Clinton's defense secretary. In 1996, Cohen decided not to run for reelection and Collins -- who had left Capitol Hill to run the Center for Family Business at Husson College in Bangor -- won his seat in her first try for elective office.
Snowe's political roots trace to her first husband, Peter Snowe, who was a member of the Maine House of Representatives. She won his seat in 1973 at the age of 26 after he was killed in an automobile accident. In 1989, she married John "Jock" McKernan, a wealthy businessman who was governor of Maine at the time and had served with her earlier in the decade in the state's two-person U.S. House delegation.
Snowe was unavailable to be interviewed for this article.
Snowe and Collins occupy opposite poles of the economic spectrum -- Snowe is the ninth-wealthiest U.S. senator, with net worth in 2007 of between $15 million and $51.6 million, while Collins was one of the least-moneyed senators, with net worth of $145,000 to $350,000. Snowe -- who also was wooed by Biden before the stimulus vote -- is known for her fabulous jewelry, expensively tailored suits and perfectly coiffed hair; Collins is more understated.
But their politics usually align, hewing to a time-tested formula that appeals to Maine voters, who tend toward "liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters," Cohen said. Voting for the stimulus could appeal to struggling workers in Maine, where unemployment hit 7 percent last month, the highest rate since 1992. And siding with President Obama may carry less risk for a Republican in Maine than in many other states, -- the Democrat won there handily in November, with 58 percent of the vote.
Now the big-buzz question on Capitol Hill is whether Collins, 56, and Snowe, who turns 62 later this month, will get along. Presenting a unified front could increase their power, but they haven't exactly been best buddies.
"They're not close personally," Cohen said. "There's some competitive spirit. I think on key issues they'll work together, but they'll come to a conclusion separately."
Even before the stimulus vote, there were signs that Maine's senators were not going to be afraid to bolt from the party line. They both voted for the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
But that was just a warm-up for what was to come.
The stimulus was Obama's biggest early policy initiative, and it quickly became clear that it wasn't going to happen without the senators from Maine. When Obama was still pushing for a package well over $800 billion, he invited Collins to the White House for an Oval Office chat. Collins had been there many times before, but she was surprised to see the door closed and find herself alone "in the oval" with the president -- no staffers, no one taking notes, just the two of them, talking for half an hour. This was a first for her. Collins, who had been collaborating with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), gave Obama a two-page proposal. But she and the president were about $200 billion apart.
Once the plan started working its way through Congress, Collins felt the bill was getting larded with projects that had nothing to do with stimulating the economy, such as pandemic flu research, as well as money to re-sod the National Mall in Washington and for preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
But Democrats knew they needed Maine. Last week, Collins said, she was called to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and presented with a proposal that sliced just $60 billion off the original plan.
"It was clearly not an offer that was made in good faith," she said.
She'd had enough. She wanted out, she said. But Specter pulled her into his Capitol hideaway office and talked her into giving it one more try, even as other Republicans -- including some who had once seemed inclined to approve a compromise plan -- were now digging in for a fight.
"In our negotiations, it was kind of like, 'Ten little Indians on the wall, one fell off and then there were nine,' " Specter said. As more Republicans soured on the plan, Specter said, "it came down to Susan and me."
Several hours later, Collins got another surprise. She was summoned to Reid's office and decided to attend a meeting, even though she was concerned that "Harry Reid would present to me another absurd offer." This time, she said, she walked in and saw Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), with whom she had formed a close working relationship while both were running the Senate committee on homeland security. Collins was late, and they'd been waiting for her, she said.
"I said to the group, 'I'm only here because Lieberman is here,' " she said. "That's when the negotiations got serious."
By Friday, it was clear that a deal would be struck and that the Maine senators and Specter were the ones making it happen. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin dubbed them the "turncoat caucus." On the Senate floor, John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had offered an alternative stimulus plan, delivered remarks that seemed to zing the three Republican defectors.
"The nation expects its Congress to act in a truly bipartisan manner to address this crisis," McCain said. "But unfortunately, this measure is not bipartisan, contains much that is not stimulative, and is nothing short of generational theft."
Others were speaking out, too -- in public and in private.
"I've been surprised and disappointed that some of them have personalized our policy disagreements," said Collins, who co-chaired McCain's Maine presidential campaign with Snowe. "I value my friendship with John McCain. It goes back many years. I'm sure that this, too, will pass."