May 6, 2011

Collins and Snowe: Centrist teamwork masks intense rivalry

The two Maine senators vote almost as one and by all accounts work well together, but are hardly the best of friends.

By MARTHA SHERRILL Special to The Washington Post

The most exasperating fact of life for a U.S. senator is not wrestling with those impossible, angry windbags across the aisle. The true test of civility is forging a relationship with that one other person who was sent to Washington to work alongside you. That unwanted sibling with whom you must share everything: a beloved home state, a prestigious job and all the voters out there in the dark.

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Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe, left, and Susan Collins

Washington Post photos by Matthew Cavanaugh

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If you happen to be members of the same party? Even worse.

Same-state rivalries abound in the Senate. And delicious tales of clashing egos and epic grudges are widely shared -- doled out by insiders like pieces of Capitol Hill candy. Some of these special relationships matter more than others. For years, tensions along the border of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry fascinated Senate-watchers, because both Massachusetts patricians had such sway.

Now the complex partnership to watch is the team from Maine. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderate Republicans, are wedged into a tight political corner together. As the polarized right and left duke it out for airtime and dollars, these two women -- often ignored -- have unprecedented power.

Publicly, the duo is known for voting together. Lockstep. Straight down the middle. In the past 15 years, they have voted in unison on war, taxes, gays, guns, health care and the stimulus package. And when it came to the 2008 presidential election, they both went early for John McCain.

But raise their names among staffers, journalists, even other senators, and the first thing mentioned isn't their voting record, but the wintry chill between them. Their Capitol Hill nickname, The Sisters, reflects both their public synchronicity and their private conflict.

"Did you say you were writing a dual profile -- or, is that d-u-e-l?" asks Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., with a chuckle. He is a close friend and colleague of Collins. "Oh, I shouldn't have said that."

Senators are only human. Why is that so easy to forget? Sometimes they seem more like statues in the park, familiar figures we walk past every day without really seeing -- or knowing in depth. Snowe and Collins have cast the deciding votes on the most monumental legislation of our time, but otherwise fly under the radar and remain unexamined. In Washington, they are accorded only two attributes: They vote together and they are intense rivals. At a demonstration of Senate civility during the president's State of the Union address in January, Snowe and Collins each happily crossed the aisle to sit with a Democratic colleague. But what truly would have surprised people is if they'd sat with each other instead.

Female rivalries are often exaggerated, of course. But in their case, it is real - and it doesn't seem to have much to do with gender.

"There is something of an intramural competition between them," William Cohen offers, completely unprompted. He is the revered former defense secretary and Maine senator for whom Collins worked for 12 years. "It's really pretty natural. Every day you are out there, trying to justify your existence to your constituents."

Maine has a history of sending heavyweights to the Senate -- people of character, sound independence and the utmost civility. Ed Muskie, the statesman. George Mitchell, the conciliator. Or Cohen, the polymath -- foreign affairs expert, novelist, poet and former basketball star.

And there's Margaret Chase Smith, a freshman senator who in 1950 became the first Republican to take a stand against anti-communist Sen. Joe McCarthy. Her impassioned speech against blacklisting on the Senate floor, her "Declaration of Conscience," was so dramatic that it became a TV movie starring Patricia Neal. By the time Smith left the Senate in 1972, she had alienated liberals by supporting the Vietnam War and her own party by voting against two of Richard Nixon's Supreme Court nominees.

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