By Ros Krasny
BOSTON (Reuters) - Maine Senator Olympia Snowe became the most-watched lawmaker in the U.S. healthcare debate by following one of the oldest and most pragmatic of maxims -- that all politics is local.
Snowe, 62, broke party ranks Tuesday, the sole Republican in Congress to back healthcare reform being promoted by President Barack Obama. Courted assiduously by Democrats eager to show bipartisan support for their healthcare plan, the moderate Republican helped to deliver Tuesday's 14-9 vote on the Senate Finance Committee.
"When history calls, history calls," Snowe said in announcing her decision during Tuesday's panel meeting.
The Finance Committee was the last of five panels in Congress to work on overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry, which Obama and Democrats say is needed to hold down costs and make healthcare available to more people. The full Senate and House of Representatives are to consider the bills soon.
It wasn't the first time the moderate Republican has blazed a different trail from her colleagues, and made her party's leaders livid as a consequence.
Conservative groups, appalled by her support of legalized abortion, environmental protections, stem cell research and gay rights, have branded her a RINO -- a Republican in Name Only.
But Snowe said her views on healthcare reform reflect what is best for her sparsely populated northeastern state, which is home to few large companies, those more likely to provide health benefits to workers.
Tucked up in the northeastern United States between Canada's Quebec and New Brunswick provinces, New Hampshire to the west and the roiling north Atlantic Ocean, Maine ranked 34th among the fifty U.S. states in per-capita income in 2007.
Maine's economy relies increasingly on tourism, but agriculture, fishing and forestry are the chief industries.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that among the nonelderly uninsured in Maine in 2007-2008, some 71 percent were from families that had at least one full-time worker, almost 5 points above the national average.
That left Snowe to choose between party orthodoxy and her conscience and constituency. As she has often done since she was elected to the Senate in 1994, she chose the latter.
"The status quo approach has produced one glaring common denominator, that is that we have a problem that is growing worse, not better," Snowe said.
Snowe was listed by Time magazine as one of America's 10 best senators in 2006 -- cited for effective work on behalf of Maine's residents and the ability to set aside partisanship.
The same year, Snowe won election to a third six-year Senate term in a landslide.
In the current, 111th Congress she has broken with party lines on other votes, delivering a crucial "yes" for Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus bill in February.
As one of the last remaining moderate Republicans, Snowe's influence over legislation in a Democratic-led Senate is greater than her state's size or economy would dictate.
Snowe has made no promise to vote for the final bill when it comes before the full Senate, depending on how it is changed as it makes its way through Congress.
Snowe, whose father immigrated to the United States from Sparta, Greece, has a personal history littered with tragedy that seems to echo her heritage.
Both parents died by the time the young Snowe was ten -- her mother of breast cancer, her father of heart disease.
In 1973, her first husband, Republican state legislator Peter Snowe, was killed in a car crash.
Snowe has racked up many firsts during a legislative career that included stints in the Maine's House and Senate and eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The first Greek-American woman to serve in the House and Senate, the hard-working legislator has rarely missed a roll call vote in her career and has not missed any in the current congressional session.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)