Olympia Snowe: Birth Control Debate Is 'Retro' 1950s

NEW YORK -- Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe received an enthusiastic response at a gala on Monday meant to spur more women to run for elective office. The retiring senator, one a handful of nationally prominent Republicans who support abortion rights, was in the 1970s one of the first recipients of support from the Women's Campaign Fund, the political action committee that sponsored the event.

But Snowe acknowledged that the moment was "bittersweet." Her departure from the Senate will mean one less woman in a body that only has 17. And the equally enthusiastic applause of the crowd at Christie's auction house for Sandra Fluke and Lily Ledbetter, whose very names now double as Democratic talking points, highlighted just how dramatically the Republican Party has ceded the terrain of women's issues.

"We need more women, and we need more bipartisanship," Snowe said. Snowe, 65, cited the lack of bipartisanship in February, when she announced she would leave the Senate when her term expires in January 2013.

Just a few years ago, Snowe recalled, she stood with President Barack Obama as he signed the Fair Pay Act named after Ledbetter. The political debate today "comes to contraceptive coverage," Snowe said.

"You know, it really is surprising, because I feel like it's a retro-debate that took place in the 1950s," Snowe said. "It's sort of back to the future, isn't it? And it is surprising in the 21st century we would be revisiting this issue. And Sandra Fluke should have been commended, not condemned, for her courage in expressing her own views and beliefs before members of Congress."

Snowe is known for her occasional attempts to compromise across the aisle as she did with the Ledbetter Act, which only two fellow Senate Republicans supported. Sam Bennett, president of the Women's Campaign Fund, said it was critical to get more women in office, not just because they were more likely to be concerned with women's rights, but "because it is women and not men that reach across the aisle, women like our best senator, Olympia Snowe."

That theme was repeated by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who added that "if Congress spent more time following her example and less time in attacks on women's health, it would have a lot more respect and our nation would be a lot better off."

For now, however, the prospect of a Congress that looks more like Olympia Snowe -- woman, pro-abortion rights and Republican -- is faint. The senator said she could think of only two women running for the Senate she supports this year, Linda Lingle and Heather Wilson. Lingle, the Republican governor of Hawaii, considers herself pro-choice -- but she was dinged by the pro-choice Democratic PAC Emily's List before taking a position against the Blunt Amendment, the contraception measure that initiated the "retro" congressional contraception debate. Wilson supports access to abortion in some cases -- but has also said that it is "morally wrong almost all of the time."