Image: Sen. Olympia Snowe
Pat Wellenbach  /  AP
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, joined Senate Democrats to help pass President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus bill earlier this year, and now she is in the middle of the health care reform debate.
updated 9/6/2009 5:11:43 AM ET 2009-09-06T09:11:43

While working for a marketing firm, Michael Townsend coined the signature phrase that appears on highway signs, T-shirts and tourism promos in these parts: "Maine — the Way Life Should Be."

"Well, things aren't the way life should be," Townsend said.

The 55-year-old Portland resident, who has multiple sclerosis, said his employer-paid health insurance covers less while his deductible has doubled to $4,000 per year. His out-of-pocket expenses are into thousands of dollars.

"It's killing me — it's killing everybody," said Townsend, who has written to Sen. Olympia Snowe, seen as a key figure in the ongoing national health care debate, to express his frustration.

Snowe, a Republican, is determined that something be done.

"People are feeling desperation and despair," Snowe said. "People want us to address health care, but they want to make sure we do it in the right way."

Once again, the longtime lawmaker, who prides herself on her bipartisan approaches to the thorniest issues, finds herself in the middle of one with big stakes.

History of bipartisanship
Earlier this year, it was President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus bill. In the end, Snowe joined Senate Democrats, along with fellow Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, in voting for the legislation and sealing its passage.

Before that, Snowe, her state's senior senator, crossed party lines and voted for the State Children's Health Insurance Program. During the George W. Bush presidency, she opposed his tax break legislation.

Now, it's health care.

Snowe, a member of the so-called Gang of Six on the Senate Finance Committee, which is under intense pressure to work out a compromise on the complex and potentially far-reaching legislation, coolly insists bipartisanship is the only answer.

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"It isn't a question of working with the Democrats," said Snowe, one of the three GOP negotiators. "It's working on a bipartisan basis to see if we can do the right thing for this country."

She would create a public health insurance option only if private insurers prove unwilling or unable to meet certain affordability targets. Nonprofit agencies, she proposes, would offer health insurance only if private insurers could not cover 95 percent of the people in their regions with plans costing no more than about 15 percent of a person's or a household's annual income.

About 118,000 Maine residents, or 9 percent of the state's 1.3 million people, lack health insurance. That's below the national average, 15 percent.

Snowe said she has heard a variety of views in her many chats with constituents on health care "and you know what the bottom line is? Something is very wrong with the health care system."

Snowe, a U.S. senator since 1995 and previously an eight-term congresswoman, is a popular political figure with a household name. She keenly understands the independence of her constituency and cultivates her moderate reputation. Unlike many of her colleagues from other states, she did not encounter noisy confrontations when she returned to Maine to gauge public opinion on the issue during the summer recess.

For years, she has been involved in health care issues, assuring constituents and activists along the way that she listens, said Tarren Bragdon, of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, a research organization. That has set the foundation for civil discourse in the current debate in the state, a marked contrast to some of her colleagues' experiences this summer.

"Since she really is listening, people continue talking rather than shouting," Bragdon said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, says Democrats would prefer a bipartisan deal but their patience is not unlimited, and he has set a Sept. 15 deadline for the Finance Committee to reach an agreement.

Opposes timetable on huge issue
However, opponents of Democratic proposals have weakened chances of a bipartisan breakthrough. An effort by Democrats to push through their own plan could require votes of moderate Republicans like Snowe.

Snowe is insistent that the issue not be forced to a vote this year.

"I have resisted the idea of a timetable from the outset," said Snowe, who has told Obama and Senate leaders that it's "unrealistic to impose an arbitrary time limit" on such a major issue.

Pro-reform groups have staged rallies and held public meetings across the state. Union and activist groups, including Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic National Committee, delivered about 35,000 letters, post cards and e-mails supporting Obama's reform proposals to Snowe's Bangor office.

Critics of the public option and conservative groups have stuck largely with the issues while urging Congress to slow down. The state Republican Party has not taken an active role in the debate, Chairman Charles Webster said.

Snowe is confident the six Finance Committee members can make a deal.

"We can't do it all probably, but I think we can really make a mighty strong effort to correct some of the huge problems," she told The Associated Press after a recent series of sidewalk tours, talking one on one with Mainers, and meetings with organized groups. "If somebody has a better idea, we're listening."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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