By Alexander Bolton - 05/06/11 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), once the Democrats' great hope for bipartisan healthcare reform legislation, has taken surprisingly conservative positions in the Senate this year.
Snowe said observers should not be surprised. She said that while her actions might have prompted a backlash from Democrats, they’re in keeping with long-held views.
“Sen. Snowe actually wrote this bill,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chairwoman of the Senate Small Business Committee. “She killed her own bill under the guise that she feels so strongly about reg reform.”
Snowe, the ranking Republican on the Small Business Committee, filibustered the bill because Democrats wouldn’t allow her a vote on an amendment she co-sponsored with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the Senate’s most outspoken conservatives. The amendment would curb federal agencies’ power to implement regulations. For example, it would require regulatory agencies to first study the potential impact on small businesses.
Snowe told The Hill that her Democratic colleagues shouldn’t be surprised. She said her amendment on regulatory reform is relevant to the underlying bill because it affects businesses across the country. She believes she had no recourse but to filibuster after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took the unusual step of denying her, the ranking member on the committee of jurisdiction, a chance to vote on her own proposal.
Landrieu said Snowe’s demand was inconsistent with her earlier request that the Small Business Committee advance a “clean” small-business bill, free of extraneous policy provisions.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) described themselves as “surprised” by Snowe’s stand on a bill that otherwise had broad bipartisan support.
“This is something eight, 10 years ago never would have happened, there never would have been cloture on this,” Feinstein said in reference to the procedure Democratic leaders pursued to end Snowe’s filibuster.
Snowe said the burden of federal regulations is a problem that must be addressed immediately, while the national economy continues to struggle.
“We have got a serious problem in America,” Snowe said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “It’s persistently high unemployment, it’s sub-par growth. The economic conditions are deeply troubling. We have to get the show on the road. That means regulatory reform. It is one of the chief, foremost concerns among small businesses.”
It’s one of several conservative positions Snowe, long considered one of the Senate’s pre-eminent centrists, has taken this year.
She disappointed environmental activists last month by voting for an amendment sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) barring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from taking action to address greenhouse gas emissions.
It was a rare instance of splitting with her home-state colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who opposed McConnell’s proposal.
David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club, said it’s the latest example of Snowe moving to the right on the issue of climate change. He noted that she voted for an amendment sponsored last year by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to tie the EPA’s hands.
“She’s already veered from her longtime pro-environment history to side with those who would stop EPA in its tracks,” he said, calling the McConnell amendment an “onerous” and drastic repeal of EPA authority.
Snowe said she supports regulations of emissions from utilities but worries that EPA regulation of the manufacturing and transportation sectors would stifle the economy. She notes that manufacturers have reduced carbon emissions by 17 percent over the past two decades and it doesn’t make sense to penalize industries voluntarily trying to reduce their carbon footprint.
Snowe said that when she sat down with Kerry in the summer of 2009 to discuss climate change legislation, she told him “we should not include manufacturing and transportation in the broad regulatory authority for the EPA — it would have a devastating impact for manufacturing which is important to Maine.”
Another surprising vote came last month, when Snowe was one of only a handful of lawmakers to vote for a resolution offered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, stating the president “does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize an attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the United States.”
Snowe said she voted for Paul’s amendment because it was her only opportunity to register concern over President Obama’s decision to bomb forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi without consulting Congress.
Snowe, who has long supported abortion rights, voted in March for a package of House-passed spending cuts, known as H.R. 1, which would have eliminated federal funding for Title X and Planned Parenthood.
Forty-three other Republicans, including centrists such as Collins, Murkowski and Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Dick Lugar (Ind.), also voted for H.R. 1.
Snowe said she voted for the House package, even though she didn’t support all of it, because Democrats would not allow any amendments to modify it.
“For me it became a vote about registering concern about our debt and deficit problem,” she said. “Democrats were offering $4 billion in cuts and Republicans were offering $62 billion,” she said.
Democrats were “putting everything in an either/or, and we can’t do that and solve the problem” she said.
Planned Parenthood forgave Snowe for that transgression after she voted against a subsequent measure linked to the 2011 bipartisan budget deal that would have stripped federal funding of family planning and women’s health services.
“There is no question that Sen. Snowe supports Planned Parenthood and the preventive healthcare we provide. When the Senate had a specific vote on the proposal to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funds, Sen. Snowe voted no,” said Tait Sye, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood.
Democrats accuse Snowe of scrambling to appease conservative voters at home in anticipation of a possible Tea-Party challenge next year.
“For good reason, Olympia Snowe is terrified of a conservative primary challenge,” said Shripal Shah, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Today she tried to score political points with her base at the expense of Maine’s economy and small businesses.”
But Snowe pushed back, saying Democrats don’t own her votes. She said she wouldn’t have the threat of a conservative primary challenge if she didn’t reach across the aisle from time to time, noting that she voted for the repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the New START nuclear treaty last year.
GOP Senate aides point out that Snowe is in line to take over as senior Republican on the powerful Commerce Committee at the end of this Congress.
If Sen. Orrin Hatch loses to a conservative challenger next year in Utah’s Republican primary, she would be next in line to take over the even more prestigious Finance Committee.
But conservatives might object to Snowe becoming ranking member or chairwoman of one of the chamber’s most powerful committees if she didn’t prove her conservative credentials. Conservative activists nearly derailed former Sen. Arlen Specter’s (Pa.) bid to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 2005 over similar concerns.
Conservatives have noticed that Snowe is voting more in line with their positions.
“Clearly, the senator has been voting more conservative over the past few months,” said Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Darling noted that Snowe has worked with her leadership to push Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to allow an open amendment process on the Senate floor.
“I wouldn’t consider her all of a sudden to be a conservative, but she’s voting more conservatively,” he said.
But Darling and other conservatives wonder whether Snowe can be counted on to head the Commerce or Finance panels if she wins reelection.
“Conservatives worry that Sen. Snowe will go back to serving as a swing vote for liberal Democrats after the November 2012 election,” he said. “Not many analysts believe that Snowe’s more conservative voting record this year signals a heartfelt ideological swing to the right.”