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New focus on Maine's other centrist Republican senator

Collins could be a critical crossover vote on health-care reform

As landmark health-care legislation moves to the Senate floor, attention in Washington has turned to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican whose vote can be unpredictable.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

BANGOR, MAINE -- A week ago, all eyes were on the senior senator from Maine, Republican Olympia J. Snowe, as she pondered the prospect of defying her party in support of a proposal to remake the nation's health-care system.

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But after she voted with Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, the what-will-Olympia-do buzz subsided, and now the junior senator from Maine is the fence-sitting Republican in President Obama's sights.

Wherever Sen. Susan Collins goes these days, people crowd around, trying to divine which way she is leaning.

"How does it feel to have everybody guessing?" Richard Dudman, 91, asked her after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Husson University.

In the annals of Maine, a quirky, sparsely populated state with outsize political influence, it is only fitting that the senators would be on the receiving end of so much attention. Both women have bucked the GOP before, most notably on Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package, and both understand the on-the-ground realities that make Maine desperately in need of health-care reform yet deeply skeptical about its impact.

For Snowe, with her modest upbringing and focus on social issues, the path to "yes" on Obama's ambitious overhaul was logical, though she reserved the right to go the other way on the final vote.

But for Collins, with her roots in small business and closer connections to the party infrastructure, the question of whether to back a Democrat-sponsored $900 billion package is more problematic.

"I really haven't made up my mind yet," she told Dudman, who, like most in the state, addresses the lawmakers by their first names.

Courting Collins

From the tiny college campus here to the Oval Office, from cable television studios to the K Street lobbying shops, people focusing on the fate of Obama's centerpiece policy initiative are dissecting every soft-spoken, noncommittal word Collins utters.

"She is masterful at gaining attention and making sure her particular issues are heard," said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville.

Already the courtship has entailed dinner with administration budget chief Peter Orszag, an invitation to confer with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and an hour-long session with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, during which the president "dropped by" for 25 minutes. On Tuesday, Collins met with a group of centrist senators who are trying to forge a middle ground.

"I don't think it's hard for her to vote against leadership, but it may be hard for her to know [whether] the bill meets Maine's needs," said John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable and a part-time state resident known to buttonhole lawmakers on the flight from Washington to Portland. "Maine doesn't care about political affiliation; it cares about what you do for Maine."

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