Playing Hard to Get: Maine’s Senators Suddenly Back in Play on HCR?

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December 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.

What a difference a week makes. After casting votes to kill the Senate health care bill, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are meeting with high-level White House officials as Democrats try to reach sixty votes.

When Harry Reid announced that his health care bill would include a public option, but that Washington would allow individual states to opt out, it left him basically no wiggle room. He lost the cautious support of Snowe and suddenly needed to run the table in his caucus.

In the hours and days afterward, it became clear that a clean sweep would be difficult, if not impossible. Days before Thanksgiving recess, leaders began negotiating with conservative Democratic hold outs on a possible compromise, modeled on Snowe’s trigger plan. And if you wanted some evidence that, on balance, the discussions are currently favoring the centrists, Tuesday offered a pretty clear picture of that.Snowe in particular continues to speak of health care reform as a project she’s a part of. Yesterday, defying her party’s own talking points, she told The Hill that a new CBO report, regarding the impact of the Senate legislation on insurance premiums, is encouraging news for reformers.

The CBO report, she says, indicates that the legislation “makes strides, without question” toward extending affordable coverage. On this score she sees room for improvement: “We have to be sure that we are providing the most affordable plans to Americans, and that’s not abundantly clear at this point,” she said. “That’s what’s of concern to me.”

But it’s not just her. Susan Collins, Snowe’s Maine colleague, told reporters yesterday that she’s been meeting with Nancy-Ann DeParle, Director of the White House Office of Health Reform, and DeParle’s deputy Jeanne Lambrew.

Those negotiations are ongoing, and Collins is a tougher sell than Snowe, but for the first time in weeks Collins suggested she may be in play.

“I made very clear that I could not support the bill as it’s currently drafted, and that there would have to be substantial changes, but I certainly hope that that will be possible,” Collins told reporters. “I think there is unease on both sides of the aisle about specific provisions in this bill, and that it’s possible that we can come up with alternatives that will garner bipartisan support.”

Collins says she’s “not a fan,” of the latest public option compromise being discussed. Still, one Democratic aide said Collins’ vote might even be more gettable than some of the recalcitrant conservative Democrats.

As always in Congress, the situation is very fluid. Momentum shifts directions very suddenly. But the very fact that so much focus is being placed on these two women should be writing on the wall to public option supporters.

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