Sens: Snowe's healthcare vote puts her top Commerce perch at risk

Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) is risking a shot at becoming the top Republican on an influential Senate committee by backing Democratic healthcare legislation, according to senators on the panel.

A Senate Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said Republicans on the panel are threatening to vote against Snowe, who is in line for the senior GOP post that is about to come open.

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“Wake up,” the Democrat told a reporter last week when questioned if the Republicans would retaliate against Snowe for crossing party lines.

Snowe, a potential swing vote on the Senate Finance Committee, could give Democrats a major boost Tuesday when that panel holds a final vote on Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) bill. She could also support the bill in the coming weeks on the Senate floor.

“A vote for healthcare would be something that would weigh on our minds when it came time to vote,” said a Republican on Commerce, who said Snowe would otherwise be assured of the ranking member post if not for the healthcare debate.

Every other GOP member of Finance is expected to vote against the healthcare bill.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), the senior Republican on Commerce, is preparing to leave the chamber to run for governor in the coming weeks.

The Republicans on Commerce will pick Hutchison’s replacement, with the entire conference ratifying that decision. Seniority is usually the most important consideration, but party loyalty could trump that.

Snowe represents the biggest wildcard for the GOP at Tuesday’s Finance vote. If she supports the bill, Democrats can claim a bipartisan product heading into the floor debate.

Her vote would diminish the threat of two Democrats who have strongly criticized Baucus’s legislation and whose votes are by no means guaranteed.
A spokesman for Snowe did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Snowe’s policy concerns include weighing how the bill, which imposes a heavy tax on high-cost insurance plans, would affect her home state, where healthcare coverage ranks among the most expensive in the country.

She also has to determine whether the bill does enough to subsidize the healthcare costs of Americans who would be required under the bill to buy insurance, a concern she has repeatedly raised.

 And she must determine whether the cost estimate provided by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) can be trusted.

Complicating the situation is the timing of Hutchison’s departure from the Senate, which could come this month or in November, at the height of the healthcare debate on the chamber floor.

“Olympia’s vote on healthcare could be a very fresh development by the time it came to replacing Kay,” said the GOP Commerce Committee lawmaker, who requested anonymity because the prospect of voting against a colleague is a sensitive subject.

Republicans will already be thinking about how Snowe has voted against her GOP colleagues many times this year. A tally by The Washington Post found that she voted with her party 58.4 percent of the time over the course of 308 votes, including on the $787 billion stimulus bill. Only Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) posted a lower party unity score (58.1 percent).

Snowe is the ranking Republican on the Small Business Committee, but she would likely give up that post to take the more prestigious slot on the Commerce panel, a significantly more powerful committee.

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Republican sources could not recall an instance in the last two decades when Republican senators voted to upset the seniority system.

The closest they came was in January of 1987, when Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to seat Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.) as the senior Republican on the panel over the late Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.), who had more seniority. But the committee’s action was overturned by a vote of the entire Republican Conference, which voted to “preserve the vital principles of party unity and Senate seniority.”

Snowe is helped by the fact that a rival for the post has yet to emerge. Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), the third-ranking Republican on the panel, has taken a hit publicly because of a recent sex scandal. The fourth-ranking Republican is Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who has been outspoken in his calls to defeat the Democratic healthcare bill.

Democrats have their own party-unity issues with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who had threatened to vote against the bill if significant changes were not made, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who blasted the measure after being denied a vote on an amendment.

Rockefeller did win a big change in the legislation when the panel adopted an amendment that would preserve the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which he helped create. Baucus had initially proposed taking many children out of the program and putting them into insurance exchanges, where they would be eligible for new federal subsidies. President Barack Obama has met with Rockefeller and Wyden in recent weeks to seek their votes, and subsequently called Rockefeller on the phone.

Wyden, who is upset the measure does not make insurance exchanges available to those with employer-provided insurance, has made no overt threats against the bill. To the contrary, he has indicated that he will try to change it at other points in the process, such as during floor debate and conference negotiations.

Baucus expects to have the votes, and after it is approved, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will merge the bill with one approved in July by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Reid would like to bring legislation to the floor as soon as next week, said a Democratic aide. The floor debate could take two or three weeks.