Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Party Politics: Snowe: A party of one

Published in the Portland Phoenix

US Senator Olympia Snowe has maneuvered herself into a position where she is the only hope Democrats have of getting a "bipartisan" agreement on healthcare reform. But it's really less that she's being bipartisan than that her bloody-minded Republican colleagues have left her as the last remnant of a system in which the two parties disagreed but found middle ground on which to govern together.

As we have told you before, Snowe is seen as politically crucial to President Barack Obama's efforts to fix our nation's broken healthcare system, but has stuck fast to her idea of compromise — in which a public-option plan would only be available if competition did not improve some yet-to-be-specified amount over some yet-to-be-specified period of time after a bill was passed (see "Snowe Misses the Point of Healthcare Reform," by Jeff Inglis, July 10).

Of course, with Snowe's major campaign donors coming from the insurance and medical sectors, it's unclear what specifics would be suitable to her. (And it's worth noting that many of the hardcore public-option Dems are heavily indebted to labor unions.)

Snowe was able to reshape the financial bailout and economic-stimulus package because the Republicans refused to be bipartisan. She is again a party of one on healthcare reform, less by her own doing than because she has been abandoned — not only by the rightmost ideologues in her party but even by fellow "moderate" Republican Senator Susan Collins. Long a fence-sitter, Collins took to CNN Sunday to tell State of the Union viewers that she opposes a public option, even if it were delayed and watered down along the lines of Snowe's proposal.

Now Snowe herself has gone even farther, outright asking Obama to drop the public option, saying on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday that there is "no way" a plan with a public option can pass Congress. And she may be right about the vagaries and perversities of how Congress works. But with that declaration, she made clear that while the Democrats retreated on the public option in hopes of getting a bipartisan agreement, they are likely now to end up with neither.

But in the wake of recent polls showing strong public support for a public option, and even one showing that nearly three-quarters of doctors favor a public option or just outright single-payer healthcare, Democrats are starting to climb back, with many saying it's important to have a public option in some form, specifically because of the need to provide competition to health-insurance companies.

It remains to be seen if Snowe will support a bill with a public-option trigger like the one she originally proposed, or if she will instead stick with her new request that any sort of public option should be "off the table." It also remains to be seen whether anyone else joins what we might as well start calling the Snowepublican Party.