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Maine Senators Play Key Role in Health Care Battle

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - September 5, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The fate of efforts to enact sweeping changes to the nation's health-care system may come down to whether two moderate New England Republicans, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, can be brought on board.

Sens. Snowe and Collins played a pivotal role in passing the $787 billion economic-stimulus package, joining Democrats to provide the key votes, along with Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Sen. Susan Collins, pictured in July, wants to hold down health costs.

Now Republican leaders are lining up to oppose health-care legislation. And getting Sens. Snowe and Collins to cross party lines will be crucial, if the White House has any hope of enacting a bill that meets the president's goal of extending insurance coverage to tens of millions of Americans.

"If you're looking for Republicans who might compromise, the two Maine senators are definitely ones he'll have to look to," said Rep. Mike Michaud (D., Maine). "Democrats will not all be on same page. So he's going to have to pick up the losses elsewhere."

The White House declined to comment.

The two senators don't move in lock step. Sen. Snowe, for example, voted to confirm Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, unlike Sen. Collins.

But in a party that is dominated by conservatives, Sens. Snowe and Collins stand out as moderates willing to buck their leadership. That in part reflects the politics of Maine, a state that doesn't traditionally insist on ideological purity. Both are hugely popular with Maine voters, who have also put in place a Democratic governor and backed President Barack Obama in 2008.

Sens. Snowe and Collins have come in for some criticism. An Aug. 1 editorial in Maine's Portland Press Herald chastised them for abandoning the Republican Party's colors and consorting too much with Democrats. The headline: "Snowe, Collins Should Act Like Republicans."

Sen. Olympia Snowe, shown in February, is working with Democrats.

So far, Sen. Snowe is carving a higher profile on the health issue. She is part of a group known as the Gang of Six, three Republicans and three Democrats from the Senate Finance Committee who are trying to piece together a bipartisan plan. She has suggested a willingness to possibly support a trigger that would establish a public insurance plan if other proposals in the bill fail to expand private insurance coverage sufficiently.

Sen. Collins isn't directly involved in negotiations, but is eager to see what the discussions come up with, according to spokesman Kevin Kelley. Sen. Collins doesn't favor a public option. She also wants to hold down the cost of the bill and reduce the cost of insurance to individuals.

The two senators' stance on revamping health care is influenced by Maine's own efforts to control costs and expand coverage, observers say. Maine has among the highest per-capita cost for health care, and competition among insurance companies is limited.

"I'm concerned about the enormous costs," Sen. Collins said in a statement.

Write to Greg Hitt at greg.hitt@wsj.com and Philip Shishkin at philip.shishkin@wsj.com

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