LEWISTON — A "Main Street walk" turned into a Main Street stop for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe on Lisbon Street on Tuesday, as Mainers intent on selling their influential senator on the merits of a public-option health-care plan crowded around her.
Instead of strolling down the street as planned, the Maine Republican stayed in one location and engaged in a substantive, respectful back-and-forth on the subject. The exchanges were in sharp contrast to news reports nationally of the angry protests other members of Congress have experienced while home for the August recess.
"That you can stand on the street corner and generate what I think was a very high level of discussion — it was very impressive on their part, and informative," said Snowe, a member of a small group of senators working to craft a bipartisan health-care reform proposal.
Katherine Missal of Woolwich pressed Snowe on several points, including how health care availability would change without a "public option" — a government-run health-care plan competing alongside private insurance.
"We really need a public option, it is the most important thing," Missal said, after telling Snowe that the six months she and her husband spent without health-care coverage was "the most frightening experience for us."
Snowe agreed with Missal that the status quo is unacceptable, but pushed back on the public-option idea.
"I just don't know if that's what our country could digest at this moment, making such a transformational change to our health-care system," Snowe said in an interview afterward. "There's merit to a lot of what they are saying. The question is, can it be accomplished in a different way because of my reservations about whether or not government can tackle this type of endeavor and do it right and well?"
Missal asked Snowe when a plan would emerge from Snowe's committee, and the senator elicited laughter from the crowd when she said President Barack Obama was also curious about that. Though four of the five congressional committees charged with developing a policy have reported out their bills, Snowe's Senate Finance Committee has not.
At the end of the exchange, which had both Missal and Snowe speaking over each other at times, Missal thanked the senator.
"Because the rhetoric out there is so horrible right now towards the representatives and the senators from the people who don't want this to happen, it's important that we let her know that we support all the work she's doing," Missal said. "She's done a lot for the state of Maine and even though she's a Republican and I'm a die-hard Democrat, I still respect her for the work she's done."
Paul Poliquin, owner of Paul's Clothing and Shoe Store on Lisbon Street where the group of about 15 people gathered, said he was sick of the scare tactics being used by both parties to influence the debate.
"Why is it there has to be a party at fault?" he asked. "It's always somebody's fault. Why can't Democrats and Republicans and all of us just work together on a good plan?" He added that he's not concerned about the country's poor or wealthy as much as the "folks in the middle."
"The government will take care of the poor and the wealthy can afford plans, but what about the rest of us?" Poliquin said. "I had a good insurance plan for my employees five years ago, and every year it's been scaled back."
Poliquin's frustrations stem from the problems she's looking to solve, Snowe said.
"We want to build upon the employer-provided model, but it's got to be affordable, and that's the key," she said.
Snowe said in her more than 30 years of public service, she's come to expect informative discussions with Mainers about issues.
"They are very much engaged in the specificity and the reasons and the rationale for their positions," she said. "They're passionate about what they believe, but they can do it in a very constructive fashion."