Maine's GOP senators thrust into stimulus debate
Feb 9, 6:24 PM (ET)
By JERRY HARKAVY
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Thousands of lost jobs and a deep streak of independence have thrust Maine into the middle of the debate over President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.
Of the three Republican senators who were the first to break ranks and support the legislation, two are from Maine: moderate Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.
That comes as no surprise to many people in this state, where independents make up the largest voting bloc and pragmatism comes with the turf.
"I grew up in Maine. We're all independents - that's the way we are," Snowe said Monday. "We look at the facts. We look at solutions. We try to be problem solvers."
Known for its vast forests and rocky coast, Maine has lost thousands of jobs since the recession began, giving it an unemployment rate of 7 percent - slightly below the national average. Many people here are more concerned with the economy than partisan bickering.
Nearly all the state's major industries have been hit by the downturn, including paper making and fishing. Even L.L. Bean instituted a wage freeze for its 5,500 workers and is considering job cuts.
Snowe and Collins, both in their third term, have found success in Maine even as the state voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections. George H.W. Bush, who lives in Kennebunkport during the summer, was the last Republican to carry the state, in 1988.
Collins' landslide victory in November over Democratic Rep. Tom Allen was a shining moment in an otherwise bleak year for the GOP.
Since then, both Snowe and Collins have received support from an unexpected source: Democratic activists who opposed Collins' re-election in November.
Americans United for Change late last month aired television ads showing scenes of a vacant factory and urging Mainers to "tell Senators Collins and Snowe to support the Obama plan for jobs, not the failed policies of the past."
After the two helped craft the bipartisan version of the stimulus bill, the group put out a radio ad praising them for their support.
Last week, both senators met one-on-one with Obama at the White House as he sought Republican votes for the stimulus package. The only other GOP senator to announce his support for the bill was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
On Monday, Obama took to the road, telling people in Indiana that quick action is needed on the stimulus legislation to avert an even deeper economic crisis. Snowe and Collins have sounded similar themes.
The $827 billion stimulus bill is expected to go to a vote Tuesday in the Senate.
Collins and Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska, led the effort to cut more than $100 billion from the package - just the latest bipartisan compromise they have crafted.
That approach resonates with Mainers like Jim McPherson, an independent who voted for Collins and is pleased to see the state's two senators taking leadership roles in shaping the stimulus bill.
"They need to put all their differences aside and work for the good of all of us. That's what they're there for," said McPherson, who rents out smelt fishing shacks along the Cathance River in Bowdoinham.
Rodney Talbot, a Democrat, voted for both Collins and Snowe, and he said he has plenty of company. "Just because you belong to the party doesn't mean you go to the party all the time," he said while having lunch in Bowdoinham.
"We voted for them to come down to some sort of workable solution that'll help this country - period," said Talbot, who's retired from the dairy industry.
Collins, who grew up in Caribou in northern Maine's potato country, says her approach reflects the outlook of her constituents.
"I believe that Maine produces public officials who are pragmatic and not ideologically rigid," she said Monday. "We apply Maine common sense to the problems before us, and we like to solve problems rather than score partisan political points."
Snowe, the daughter of Greek immigrants who grew up in southern Maine, agrees that pragmatism runs strong among the voters she has represented in Washington since 1979.
Getting caught in the middle is nothing new for the moderates. They helped craft the compromise in 2005 that staved off a GOP move to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations.
As deficit hawks, they helped defeat some of the deepest tax cuts proposed by George W. Bush. They also opposed Bush at times on the war in Iraq.
On Monday, Snowe and Collins both lamented the polarization that they say has poisoned the political environment and crimped efforts to reach across party lines.
But they are also facing criticism from conservatives in their own party who deride them as RINOs - Republicans in name only - and have peppered their offices with calls and e-mails urging that they fall into line with other GOP senators.
Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Maine's Colby College, suggests that many Republicans are misjudging the nation's mood.
"Snowe and Collins are reading both what is necessary at this time in politics and what the country has said they wanted much better than are their fellow Republicans in the Senate," Maisel said.