Everyone rooting for President Obama to enact his agenda into law should get to know the following two names: Senator Olympia Snowe and Senator Susan Collins. These two women are going to be the most important Republicans in Washington for the next two years. Because they're going to be first on the Democrats' speed dial, whenever there is an important bill coming up in the Senate.
Collins and Snowe both hail from Maine, and are the last two of a dying breed -- fiscally-conservative (but non-ideological) moderate New England Republicans. An age ago, they would have been considered middle-of-the-road Moderate Republicans. Since the GOP's lurch to the right, they are now seen as Flaming Liberal Republicans by the party's hardcore base.
That's all fine and good. Because neither one of them shows any sign of losing an election any time soon, so they're pretty comfortable with their support back home. Collins was just up for re-election in 2008, and in a state that went 58/41 for Obama, she won her race by an even bigger margin the other way -- 61/39. So liberal Maine voters love her, and the same could be said for Snowe as well.
But, assuming that Al Franken is eventually seated as the newest senator from Minnesota, Snowe and Collins are going to be the key to getting some things done in the next two years. Which is why I call them the most important two Republicans in Washington.
To be blunt, the House Republicans can be completely and utterly ignored. Due to gerrymandered-safe districts, they can play to their base to their hearts' delight for the next two years, complaining and whining about this that and the other. Please, everyone, just ignore them. Because with the overwhelming majority Nancy Pelosi has to work with, they simply do not matter when it comes to passing bills. To paraphrase the president: "We won. Deal with it."
And the Senate Republicans' relevance hangs by a very thin thread indeed. All it will take is one Republican to defect to the other side of the aisle, and the GOP won't even be able to filibuster any more.
I know the talk is all of "bipartisanship" and wild figures like "80 votes in the Senate" are bandied about freely, but I don't think that's how things are going to work -- at least not at first. Republicans are terrified of becoming utterly irrelevant to the process in D.C., and they're going to try to grasp that relevance tightly before giving it up. So they will try to obstruct, as evidenced by the increasing attacks on the stimulus package. The question is whether they will be able to get away with it or not. Because if Collins or Snowe comes out publicly for any Democratic proposal, that means it is going to pass the Senate. The Republicans only have 41 votes. Meaning if any one of them defects, they cannot sustain a filibuster. If two defect, then they will likely throw in the towel altogether.
At that point, when it's a done deal, we may see some Republicans voting for it anyway. After they know they've lost the battle, some may decide to get on board with the president in the end, with their eye (as always) on getting re-elected. If it turns out to work, and if it turns out to be wildly popular, they really don't want to be on the wrong side of things. There may be some face-saving tinkering around the edges of it, but in the end Obama may get a 70 or 80 bipartisan vote. Stranger things have happened.
The story broke today that Democrats are already courting Snowe and Collins. Excellent news. A few weeks ago, I wrote that Democrats should all swear a public oath to only use Maine maple syrup on their pancakes and resolve to eat lobster once a week. Hey, it couldn't hurt. While in normal times, Maine would just get a boatload of federal dollars for roads or bridges, this runs kind of counter to the fiscally-conservative New England streak. But the lobster industry is in real trouble, so maybe some sort of bailout provisions specifically aimed at them would do the trick.
The story also broke today that Susan Collins is going to vote against confirming Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Fine -- if she needs to show independence from the president, by all means, do so (on a vote Obama's going to win anyway).
But again, the key to important bills such as the stimulus -- the key to most of Obama's agenda -- will be to break the dam of obstruction the GOP so reflexively puts up to any Democratic ideas. And the key to breaking that dam is likely going to be named either Snowe or Collins, on issue after issue. Keep a close eye on these two, because they could be the courageous aisle-jumpers Obama's going to need.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com