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She May Be on the Other Team, But She Called All 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.

Snowe had been the focus of such media attention for months, as she strolled through the Capitol wearing a Mona Lisa smile and carrying on a public debate with herself that would have made her at home in Elsinore Castle.

"Did they get in my brain yet?" she said last week of those trying to divine her intentions. "They've got me voting yes, preserving my leverage. Voting no, preserving my leverage."

Regular, indecisive updates came from Mount Olympia: "I've got a lot to think about. . . . I'm still grappling with the question of affordability. . . . I would rather have the comfort level of having sufficient time to analyze it over the weekend."

Conservatives, who already regarded Snowe as a RINO, or a Republican in Name Only, are sure to be irked by her latest infidelity. But they had to admire her ability to earn attention. From the moment she entered the hearing room, wearing a light blue jacket, her hair pulled back tightly, as always, by a clip, photographers surrounded her. "You got to move over more if you want to be in the picture," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) advised Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who was sitting next to her. For the cameras, Kyl pretended to twist Snowe's left arm.

But Snowe wasn't persuaded. Americans, she told the panel in her Yankee accent, "want us to continue working, and that is what my vote in committee here today represents." To support her yes vote, she turned to the Maine-born poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: "Great is the art of the beginning, but greater is the art of the ending."

When it comes to the courtship of Snowe, the art of ending is particularly delicate, so committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was effusive in responding to her. "Thank you, Senator, for that very thoughtful statement. . . . I thank you for it. . . . I just thank you very much. . . . Thank you very, very much."

A few reporters walked up to Baucus after the vote, but far more circled Snowe. She reminded them that her vote was good only "at this point in time. I'm going to take it step by step every day."

NBC's Ken Strickland asked if she was relieved that, after being the focus of attention for months, the vote was finished. "I see another phase coming," she said. "This is, you know, going to be a long-standing endeavor."

The work of the indecisive is never done.

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