Applying heat to Snowe

APPLYING HEAT TO SNOWE…. There’s plenty of rhetoric from Republicans on the Hill about the need for Democrats to reach out to GOP lawmakers to negotiate on health care reform. The talk has long been rather silly — nearly all of the Republican caucus opposes reform. Talks with Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi dragged on for months, even when it became obvious they weren’t negotiating in good faith.

For that matter, Democrats continue to invest considerable time and energy in wooing Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine — arguably the only Republican in Congress who seems sincerely interested in passing a bill — and her caucus is almost desperate to see those talks end.

That puts the pressure squarely on Snowe, the three-term Maine moderate who has been at the center of the Senate Finance Committee’s bipartisan Gang of Six negotiations — and who is widely considered to be the Republican most likely to jump ship. “Everybody’s praying she won’t,” says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Some Republicans are doing more than praying. Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said it would be “naive” and “very foolish” for any GOP senator to allow a Democratic proposal to advance, because the Democrats would ultimately change the bill to their liking in conference committee.

“It would be terrible if one Republican chose to basically sell out the whole [Republican] Conference, particularly in return for some naive idea that we can get some compromise here and that it’s going to hold up in [a House-Senate] conference.”

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said he didn’t want to speculate how much backlash Snowe would receive from her caucus if she were the lone GOP senator to support the plan — but he also made clear that a lone defector would be in a tough spot.

“Except to say this: If Republicans are unanimous or maybe unanimous but one — that puts a real spotlight on anybody who does differ from all of their colleagues,” Kyl said.

If senators are willing to use phrases like “sell out the whole conference” on the record, it’s safe to assume the pressure Snowe is feeling to reject reform, even if Democrats shape the bill exactly to her liking, is even more intense behind the scenes.

Snowe has faced this kind of pressure before, and given Maine’s left-leaning ways, it’s likely the senator will face at least as much lobbying from her constituents in the other direction.

But one thing to keep in mind is that the Senate Republican caucus, unlike Senate Dems, have mechanisms in place to enforce party unity and discipline. When Democrats break party ranks on key bills, there are no consequences. Those who let GOP leaders down, however, know in advance that enticements like committee positions are very much on the line. Rumor has it that Grassley began trashing reform more aggressively in August when his Republican colleagues made it clear that his future assignments were in jeopardy if he worked with Dems to pass a reform bill.

Snowe, in other words, may very well be punished for doing the right thing. And she knows it.

Another possible angle to consider: if state lawmakers in Massachusetts change the law and an interim Democratic senator brings the majority back to 60, how would this change the negotiations?