After more than a dozen independent-minded years in the chamber, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe now finds herself in the unique position of trying to serve two masters, balancing her established role as centrist contrarian with her new job as part of the Senate GOP’s whip team.
Already feeling torn between party loyalty and her desire to express her displeasure with the White House over the Iraq War, Snowe said in an interview Wednesday that Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) tapped her for the whip team precisely because of her more moderate policy perspectives, and she indicated that she is unlikely to suddenly start voting in lock step with her party just because she now sits at the Senate GOP leadership table.
“Obviously, you have to carefully balance that,” Snowe said. “But my obligation first and foremost is to my constituency in Maine. … You should never forget who you represent, because inside the Beltway there are conflicting and competing forces.”
Still, she said she always has been engaged in making sure the Republican Party wins policy debates and makes astute political decisions, and that will continue to be the case.
“I am a Republican, and I want them to be successful,” she said.
As for the criticism that she has not supported the party enough in the past, Snowe said, “I’m as much a Republican as anybody else, and I think I represent the traditional wing of the Republican Party.”
But conflicts between Snowe and the rest of the Senate Republican leadership appear inevitable given the expectation that whip team members support the party on most procedural votes — particularly those dealing with minority party rights.
While House Republican Deputy Whips often are kicked off the team if they vote against their leadership on procedural votes, Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.) said those in the Senate have much more latitude but are still generally expected to vote with the party on procedural motions.
“There’s an understanding … that each Senator needs to do what’s in the best interests of their state,” Thune said. “Having said that, obviously we have a job to do, which is to help our party win votes on the floor.”
Thune acknowledged that both Snowe and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who also serves as a Deputy Whip, already have been given a pass during the Iraq debate.
Last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Republicans to vote against beginning debate on a nonbinding resolution of disapproval on Iraq as a protest against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) refusal to allow a vote on some alternate GOP proposals.
While Coleman voted twice with the Democrats, Snowe initially voted with her leadership, but broke on the second vote after admonishing both the Democratic and Republican leaders over their inability to come to an agreement on the terms of debate.
Still, Thune said Coleman and Snowe were not pressured to vote with the majority of their party because Republicans had the more than 40 votes needed to block Democrats from moving forward on the Iraq resolutions.
However, that situation would change, Thune said, if a whip team member were poised to be the deciding vote on such tactical votes.
“In positions like that, you’d go to one of those people — most probably someone who is not up for re-election — and say, ‘We really need you on this,’” said Thune, hinting that Snowe would likely get the pressure since Coleman faces voters in 2008.
Indeed, of the centrists on the GOP whip team, Snowe is likely to get more pressure to support her party than Coleman, considering she just won re-election last year with the second-most support — 74 percent of the vote — of any Senate incumbent, Republican or Democrat. (Only Indiana Republican Sen. Dick Lugar did better, with 87 percent.)
But Snowe said that pressure may sometimes fall on deaf ears if she feels she needs to vote a certain way, even on procedural votes.
“I just couldn’t give a carte blanche commitment to voting for every procedural vote,” Snowe said. “I look at it on a case by case basis.”
And Republicans say they do see at least one reason why she might need to continue to buck the party, despite her stunning electoral win last November.
Even though Snowe is safe for another six years, her home-state colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R), is facing a potentially tough reelection race in a Democratic-trending state, noted one senior Senate GOP aide. And given the media environment in Maine, where breaks between the two women often create more news than when they’re on the same page, Snowe will be needed to shore up support for Collins.
“During the 2008 election season, she needs to back Sen. Collins up on some of these votes,” said the aide. Snowe “doesn’t think about it through that lens, but [the leaders] do.”
Meanwhile, several Deputy Minority Whips, including Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Larry Craig (Idaho) downplayed the need for loyalty within the team, saying their primary job is to gauge the pulse of the entire Senate Republican Conference and offer advice on how to proceed.
And Lott said that’s why he chose a diverse team to help him count votes, and when necessary, twist arms.
“If you’re going to maximize your understanding of where the Conference is and maximize the success of the whip team, you’ve got to have a divergency of views,” Lott said.
Lott also indicated that Snowe, who previously served as his Chief Deputy Whip in the House, was brought to the Senate leadership table this year both to give guidance on what positions moderate GOP Senators are taking and also to try to enhance her desire to stick with the rest of the party on tough votes.
“When she’s in on the take-off, she’s more likely to be with you on the landing,” said Lott.
He also conceded that her inclusion on the whip team was, in part, an attempt to repair relations between Snowe and the Senate GOP leadership, with which she often clashed when then-Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) served as Majority Leader.
“She was not a happy camper with our leadership over the past couple of years,” Lott said.
Thune agreed that it helps to have Snowe on the team in order to make her feel that she is part of the decision making process and not simply on the outside being told what to do.
“There’s always an advantage of having people on the team who have ownership and are invested in our success,” said Thune.
Snowe agreed that she likely will be more invested in GOP leadership decisions, especially if her advice is heeded on occasion.
“Maybe you can steer them in a different direction if they’re hearing differing points of view,” she said.