The Positive Side of Snowe’s Vote
Posted on October 16, 2009
(This originally appeared in The Politico )Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s “aye” vote in the Senate Finance Committee for the Baucus version of health care reform was unsurprising. Still, it has stirred up waves of revulsion among the GOP’s hard-core right wing and great concern among the rest of the party faithful.
One prominent conservative blogger is organizing a campaign to send rock salt to Snowe’s office as a way to protest. (Salt melts snow — get it? Ha-ha.) Some insiders have threatened to strip Snowe of her ranking-member slot on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. And others are lamenting that her move gives the Democrats all kinds of momentum to get their health care plan completed, under the fraudulent cover of bipartisanship.
I offer a counterview. The Maine senator’s vote can be a positive, not only for Snowe but also for the Republican Party and for the country at large. Here are five reasons why:
1. Snowe’s vote takes the reconciliation option off the table. The hard left of the Democratic Party has urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to take health care to the floor under budget reconciliation rules. These rules require only 51 votes for passage, meaning that the hard left would ultimately control the process. If you don’t need moderates for passage — under a 51-vote scenario — you don’t need moderates for anything.
But Reid, who has his own political problems back home in politically moderate Nevada, has been looking for an excuse not to go with that option. A bill that freezes out moderates will also alienate his home-state voters. Now Reid can say to the left that there is no need to go with reconciliation because Snowe is still gettable. Taking reconciliation off the table is good for the country because final legislation of such monumental and lasting importance would be much worse should it pass with only 51 votes.
2. Snowe’s vote takes the public option off the table. Snowe has said she will not vote for a public option unless it has a triggering mechanism. But triggers never work and rarely make it into final bills. Snowe tried the same tactic on the tax cut issue during the Bush administration, but it, too, died. The public option is dead, and that also is good for the American people.
3. Snowe’s “yes” vote gave moderate Democrats cover in committee. Snowe might still vote against the next batch of health care bills, and her early support could take away Democrats’ political cover on the Senate floor. Of course, we don’t know yet how the final package will turn out, but by giving Chairman Max Baucus a vote in committee, she strengthened her hand during the time that it really counts. The Finance Committee is prologue. Now comes the real bargaining.
4. Snowe will be more responsive to GOP pressure than either Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) or Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). Snowe is still a Republican — an independent one to be sure, but a Republican nonetheless. And although she is not up for reelection in 2010, she still has to look over her shoulder for a future primary challenge from the right.
That doesn’t mean that she will buckle under that pressure, but theoretically at least, she will have to be responsive to it. Democratic moderates worry about primary challenges not from the right but from the left. And while they must be concerned about general election challenges, the fact is that all centrist Democrats who are up this cycle will have to face the music regardless of how they vote. To have the key negotiator to the entire package be a Republican, no matter how moderate, is positive. In a world where Republicans have very little if any leverage, Snowe has just made herself relevant. And that can be useful.
5. Snowe’s vote sends a wake-up call to Republicans that they have to come up with a detailed alternative. Republican leaders in the past (Bob Dole, Bill Frist) and the present (Gov. Bobby Jindal) have sent none-too-subtle signs to congressional Republicans that they’d better get their own plan ready. In 1993 and 1994, the Republican alternative ultimately slayed the Hillary-health-care dragon. Because Republicans had a common-sense substitute that garnered centrist Democratic support, congressional Democratic leaders simply didn’t have the votes to move their bill through. Snowe’s vote this week was a cri de coeur to Republicans to come up with a less costly, more effective plan to fix health care in this country.
It is still too early to see how this whole thing will turn out. While Democrats and pundits confidently predict that health care is now a done deal, no questions asked, I am not entirely certain of that. And while I understand why some think that Snowe’s vote to keep the process moving is treachery, I can see some good reasons why she wants to remain relevant to the process and why that might be a good thing for the country.