PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe describes a scene out of a Rockwell painting: With Washington crippled by a blizzard, President Barack Obama worked the week before Christmas with a fire roaring in the fireplace in the Oval Office. Outside the window, his daughters played in the snow with their dog.
Inside, Snowe writes in a new book, she delivered sad news to the president, whom she described as gracious.
The Maine Republican couldn’t support Obama’s health care overhaul because her ideas, solicited in more than a dozen calls and eight face-to-face meetings, were left out of the final bill. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn’t allow amendments. The bill passed on a straight party-line vote.
In her book, the now-retired Snowe writes about her 34 years on Capitol Hill that she says went from a place where parties worked to forge compromise to today’s obstructionist politics and partisanship. The parties, she says, have become more interested in making each other look bad and focusing on re-election than doing what’s best for the nation.
“I’m not here to suggest there was a golden era of bipartisanship,” Snowe told The Associated Press in an interview Friday. “It’s never easy to compromise, but you must. In the past we were able to work out our differences. Today, it’s all about taking it to the next election.”
The release of her book, “Fighting for Common Ground,” on Tuesday coincides with an online push to get voters to turn up the heat on lawmakers through the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank founded by Democrats George Mitchell and Tom Daschle and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker. Weinstein Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, is donating a portion of her book revenues to the organization.
“It’s a place to gather frustrated Americans who want to make change in the way government works and to be a catalyst for change and a call to arms,” Snowe said in an interview.
Snowe, a self-described centrist, retired from the Senate in January after deciding she could not be effective given the polarization of the parties that left her increasingly alone in the middle.
Her decision stunned the political world.
Just a week before her February 2012 announcement that she wouldn’t seek a fourth term in the Senate, she’d attended fundraising events in New York. But she wrote that she’d been considering leaving the Senate for several months, confiding in her husband, former Maine Gov. John McKernan, and a handful of trusted aides.
Not even her campaign manager knew.
Working outside the Senate, Snowe plans to press for a number of changes to promote civility and compromise: filibuster reform, an open amendment process, elimination of secret “holds” on legislation, authorization of two-year budgets and an end to so-called Leadership PACs, among others.
In her book, she writes that there’s plenty of blame for both parties and that she’s disappointed that nothing changed after the election of Obama, who vowed to bring the parties together.
Instead, she writes, Obama let the Democrat-controlled Congress loose on the stimulus bill, upsetting conservatives. Then he left Republicans marginalized as Democrats worked on the Affordable Health Care Act, further fueling tea party activists. That allowed divisions between Democrats and Republicans to grow even greater.
“With little chance of cross-party agreement, legislating became guerrilla warfare, marked by cloture motions and filibusters, legitimate devices in the senatorial arsenal but hardly the path to well-crafted legislation to attract bipartisan support,” she wrote.
Snowe, 66, came about her independence through being orphaned at age 9 and sent off to an out-of-state boarding school run by the Greek Orthodox Church. After returning to Maine, tragedy struck again at age 26 when her husband, Peter Snowe, a state lawmaker, died in a car crash. She ran for his seat and won, launching her political career.
Her life experience shaped her philosophy: “My concept of government’s role in people’s lives is that it is limited but legitimate, and essential when people have nowhere else to turn,” she wrote.
By her last term, Snowe writes that a senator’s willingness to reach across the aisle had become a “scarlet letter” instead of badge of honor. And her willingness to do so had led to frustration among her increasingly conservative Republican colleagues.
She got a chuckle from an episode during the markup of the president’s health care bill in which she tripped and fell to the floor, hard enough for there to be a collective gasp in the room.
Perhaps it was telling that three Democratic senators hopped up to check on her. Reflecting on it, she doesn’t read too much into the fact that no Republican colleagues jumped to action. But, she added, “It certainly was interesting symbolism of the time and moment.”
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