03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Olympia Snowe's Mysterious Role in Health Care Reform

A Snowe storm has engulfed the media since last Tuesday. After becoming the lone Republican supporter of the Democratic health care reform effort, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine has, to some, become the bill's raison d'etre. As the long, dramatic saga of reform approaches its final stretch, Snowe's decision has erupted into a blizzard of infighting among Democrats regarding how tightly they should hold on to her support.

The main source of tension is that preserving Snowe's vote will likely require sacrificing the public insurance option (or at least debilitating it in some way), a provision that's supported by a majority of the public, but virulently opposed by Republicans and conservative activists. The House looks set to pass it, but support in the Senate is much more elusive.

This dispute extends well beyond the mathematics of a single vote. Snowe's vote on the Finance Committee bill (final tally 14-9) was not necessary for its passage. Nor is she likely to cast the deciding vote in the eventual bill on the Senate floor. Instead, it's the symbolism of her support, and the different interpretations of it, at the center of the controversy.

While President Obama prefers to have a public plan, he seems increasingly willing to sacrifice it for cloture. The president's proclivity toward bipartisanship is a natural hazard of his transcendent, post-partisan governing style, where the search for existing common-ground trumps the desire to take on and fight his opponents. Democrats Max Baucus and Kent Conrad have deviously championed this "bipartisan" approach, largely in an effort to mask their special camaraderie with the insurance industry.

More importantly, it's about securing the votes of red-state Democrats like Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Evan Bayh, who will face a fierce backlash if they support any measure that might be characterized as "liberal." Even a single Republican backer could provide the necessary political cover for these senators to justify their votes to their conservative constituencies. Some, including Blanche Lincoln, face a tough re-election in 2010, making them ever more likely to vote cautiously.

Progressive lawmakers and activists, however, believe a public option is attainable and worth fighting for -- and that Snowe's opposition will not sink the legislation. Congressman Alan Grayson reproved Democratic leaders for their inclination toward appeasement, teasing them for "dwelling on the question, the unbelievably consuming question, of how to get Olympia Snowe to vote for health care reform." Raul Grijalva, leader of the House Progressive Caucus, called the courtship of Snowe a "waste of time."

The inclusion of a public option will make 60 Senate votes very difficult, but not all Democrats and Independents have promised to bypass a Republican filibuster in either scenario. Embracing the public plan, however, leaves Democrats with the budget reconciliation option, with a new and reachable target of 51 votes. The downside is it'll deepen the partisan divide, but how much worse can that get? A certain level of wrangling with Republicans and arm-twisting of wavering Democrats looks necessary for the bill to pass with or without a public plan.

Moreover, Snowe is from a progressive state that supports Obama and a public option in big numbers. It's entirely plausible that her vote won't affect the electoral dynamics for red-state Democrats. It's also plausible that they will be savagely attacked for supporting anything containing Obama's stamp-of-approval, making the abandonment of a public option politically fruitless, if not harmful, as it could alienate House progressives.

The other danger is that if the Democratic leadership settles now, it will embolden Republicans, Blue Dogs and conservative Democrats to slice more flesh from the bill in the joint committee markup. The document that lands on Obama's desk will inevitably be a lot weaker. But if Democrats hold their ground now with a public plan, the 60 vote target shrinks to 51 under reconciliation, making the trajectory of the bill invariably more progressive. As it comes down the wire, Pelosi and Reid will find enough backers who don't want to be caught voting against health care reform.

Whatever happens, a health care bill in some form looks guaranteed to pass, and partisan or bipartisan, the Democratic Party will get to claim a huge victory. But Obama and Democrats have little time to make a big decision: they can take the cautious, more conservative route and create a bill that marginally improves certain parts of the system. Or, they can prioritize substance over bipartisanship, go the bold and courageous route, and make history by passing legislation that Americans of all political stripes will appreciate as their health care ills subside.

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.