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The importance of being pivotal

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Rick Horowitz
October 15, 2009
Once upon a time, I had a teacher. A law professor, to be precise about it. (And he’d want me to be precise about it—he was a law professor.) He was an excellent professor, even though—or should that be because?—he was known to wander away from the syllabus from time to time to indulge in the entertaining-if-only-mildly-pertinent anecdote.

This particular morning, he was telling us about his dealings with the stock market. They were minor, almost minuscule, dealings, he admitted. Still, there was something to be said for being involved. There was, for instance, his one share of AT&T.


Now, one share of AT&T was beyond minuscule; it was practically non-existent. But the professor didn’t see it that way. The professor was taking the longer view. One day, he said, there might be a crucial shareholders meeting, with a crucial vote, on a crucial issue.


And the vote might be tied.


He’d be sitting mighty pretty then, wouldn’t he?


So let’s talk about Olympia Snowe.


If it’s good to be on the winning side, and bad to be on the losing side, best of all may be being the one who decides which is the winning side and which is the losing side.

So let’s talk about Olympia Snowe and health-care reform. Tuesday’s Senate Finance Committee vote wasn’t tied, exactly. There were 13 Democrats on the committee and only 10 Republicans; assuming Chairman Max Baucus could keep his own troops in line, the bill was going to pass regardless of which way Sen. Snowe came down.


But her vote was the pivotal vote nonetheless; hers would be the vote that would allow the chairman—and the president—to claim that health-care reform had “bipartisan” support in Congress. Which would make reform more popular with the public. Which would also make reform more palatable (i.e. provide some political cover) to some of the Senate’s more conservative Democrats.


Olympia Snowe’s vote might not have been a tie-breaker, but it was a mood-shifter. A perception-alterer.


Which means the senator from Maine was sitting mighty pretty.


(Come to think of it, my law professor moved to Maine the year after I took his class. You don’t think he…?)


What we don’t yet know is Olympia Snowe’s price for being the lone Republican to vote in favor of any of the five different bills the various Senate and House committees crafted over all these months. What we can assume is that she didn’t jump the fence for nothing. A favored provision inserted here. A loophole closed there. A problem clause tweaked to her satisfaction.


Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s all in the great tradition of legislative deal-making. She’s got something they want, they’ve got something she wants. Let’s do some business.


At least she’s not the kind who gloats, who flaunts her influence and does a victory dance when the bargaining’s done. She keeps her head down, and her voice soft: reasonable people, having a reasonable conversation about matters of mutual interest. Who could object to that?


And anyway, who says the bargaining’s done? You heard her announce, even as she was voting to send the committee’s bill to the Senate floor, that “My vote today is my vote today. It doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.”


Some people took that as indecision. Maybe so.


Or maybe she can count. She realizes that her one vote in the Senate might be the difference between getting to 60 and not getting to 60.


She’s still sitting mighty pretty.


Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.

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