Washington Sketch: Snowe's on the Other Team, but She Called the Plays

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sen. Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, is fast becoming the Brett Favre of the political world: She has trouble making up her mind, but she sure knows how to play ball.

Football's Favre, forever retiring and unretiring, has become so famous for indecision that the

Packers-turned-Jets-turned-Vikings quarterback recently cut an ad for Sears in which he hesitates over the purchase of a TV. "I'll take it!" he tells the salesman, then: "I don't know."

Congress's answer to Favre is Snowe, the wiry New Englander who, for the past several months, has been unable -- or unwilling -- to take a position on health-care legislation. The longer she held out, the more concessions Democrats made to win her over, to the point where she became, arguably, the single most influential member of Congress drafting the legislation, even though she is a member of the minority party.

Democrats negotiated with her for months; President Obama wooed her personally. Olympia wants amendments? She gets amendments. Olympia needs more time? The Senate Finance Committee delays its vote. Olympia opposes government-run insurance? VoilĂ  -- the public option is gone.

The coy routine was working so well for Snowe that, as she walked into the Hart Building on Tuesday morning for the committee vote on the legislation, she claimed she still hadn't made a decision.

"I have certain inclinations," she told the reporters and photographers who mobbed her. And: "I want to hear more." And: "You always learn something new about this bill." And: "I haven't made up my mind." And: "Let's see how the day goes."

Finally, three hours later, the wavering lawmaker was ready to announce her position. Sort of. "Is this bill all that I would want? Is it all that it can be? No," said Snowe. "But when history calls, history calls." After this halfhearted announcement that she was, with "reservations," becoming the only Republican to vote with the Democrats, she added a warning: "My vote today is my vote today. It doesn't forecast what my vote will be tomorrow."

Give that woman a Lombardi Trophy.

How she managed to gain such control over the process is a measure of deft, and opportunistic, political skill. Democrats, who already have 60 votes in the Senate, theoretically don't need her support. But in practice, they do -- to persuade their own wavering moderates to support the legislation.

Snowe's vote also gives Democrats the right to claim that their bill is technically "bipartisan," even if it is opposed by the 39 other Republicans. Thus, Snowe's support vastly improves the legislation's prospects, as demonstrated by the retreat of health insurance stocks on Wall Street after Snowe announced her support for the measure.

The intrigue over the Maine lawmaker's pending decision created an unusual meteorological phenomenon for the capital in mid-October, as various media outlets announced their Snowe forecasts Tuesday morning. ABC's George Stephanopoulos put the probability of Snowe falling on the "no" side of the legislation at 40 percent. Politico's Mike Allen put the likelihood of a "no" vote at 80 percent.

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