Will Olympia Snowe Bolt the GOP?

It would be understandable for those who closely follow politics to have missed Republican Senator Olympia Snowe's comments on health care a couple of days ago.

The second week of September was an unusually big week for partisan politics (and that's saying something in this day and age). Commentators on both sides of the divide sparred bitterly over the crowd estimates for the massive 9/12 Taxpayer March on the National Mall. In addition, the drip, drip, drip of scandalous revelations surrounding the ACORN "prostitution sting" further strained the lengths of recent political polarization. And as the weekend neared, allegations of racist opposition to President Barack Obama's policies -- aired by former President Jimmy Carter, no less -- had further dashed the longstanding hopes for bipartisan cooperation that followed Barack Obama's inauguration in January.

Given all that, Senator Snowe's mid-week remarks on her place in a changing GOP might seem tame. Snowe, a moderate Republican and senior senator from Maine, stated that "I haven’t changed as a Republican, I think more that my party has changed." The comments came in an interview with John Harwood on CNBC. Citing the full quotation might be a useful background for the analysis that follows. Asked why she was a Republican, she answered:

Well, you know, it’s -- I’ve always been a Republican for the traditional principles that have been associated with the Republican Party since I, you know, became a Republican when I registered to vote. And that is limited, you know, limited government, individual opportunities, fiscal responsibility, and a strong national defense. So I think that those principles have always been a part of the Republican Party heritage, and I believe that I, you know, reflect those views. And I haven’t changed as a Republican, I think more that my party has changed.

The context for Snowe's partisan affirmation is her target as a potential -- and crucial -- GOP vote for the president's ObamaCare legislation. Snowe has been on record as opposing the "public option" provision that would create a government-sponsored insurance "exchange" to compete with private companies. (On the left, some hope that a "robust" public option will eventually form a "single-payer" nationalized system of universal health care). In fact, the public option has become the face of "socialized medicine" for conservatives throughout the year. And, as the administration has essentially squandered its political capital on a measure that's ostensibly marginal to its oft-stated claims of lowering costs, increasing efficiency, and guaranteeing affordability, the defeat of health care reform has remained a not improbable outcome these last few months.

But in the last couple of weeks a new proposal by Senator Max Baucus of Montana has rekindled Democratic prospects for the passage of landmark legislation. The Baucus bill drops the public option but mandates that all Americans purchase health insurance coverage. The measure also would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to those with a pre-existing condition. A number of top senators oppose the Baucus measure (Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Ron Wyden of Oregon, etc.), but Senator Snowe has been sympathetic. And as a key member of Baucus' Senate Finance Committee, many are looking to Snowe as the one GOP vote needed to pry the legislation out of committee.