Two green thumbs up

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Maine’s two senators compile strong environmental records even while balancing tough choices.

AUGUSTA – What does it mean to be green?

Maybe it means taking extra care with the recycling every week, composting household garbage and voting for environmental bonds every couple of years.

For others it’s a question of activism – fighting for a cleaner Androscoggin River, protesting sprawl, boycotting large SUVs or attending an Earth Day rally.

But for a politician, forever in the public spotlight, being green means balancing scores of countervailing positions and making difficult choices between competing priorities.

So it is for Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.

Environmentalists describe them as the go-to Republicans in the Senate and national leaders on environmental issues, which often puts them at odds with their GOP colleagues and President Bush.

Consider the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the prospects of drilling there for oil.

Keeping ANWR as a pristine wildlife area, free from development and oil exploration and production, is a top priority for many environmentalists. On the other side, the Bush administration and the leadership of the Republican-dominated U.S. House and Senate are just as dedicated to securing the oil buried beneath the refuge.

Snowe and Collins have both aggressively fought against opening up ANWR.

In March, however, Snowe voted for the Senate budget resolution that includes a provision to allow drilling there.

After supporting several failing efforts to have ANWR removed from the bill, Snowe found herself with a difficult choice. She had successfully inserted into the budget increased funding for veterans’ health services, changes in the Medicare prescription drug program and a boost in funding for low-income heating assistance.

To get those initiatives through, she needed to support the budget, which eventually passed the Senate, 51-49.

Collins voted against the budget, citing ANWR as one of the big reasons why.

Critics sound off

That vote opened Snowe up to criticism from the enforcers of environmental orthodoxy.

On the liberal Web site Dailykos.com, a blogger by the handle of NYPopulist handed out “spanks” and “thanks” to senators for their votes on the budget:

“Olympia Snowe – Spank: Long considered one of the leaders against opening up ANWR, she voted for the budget. She probably would have seemed like a hypocrite if she voted against the budget after pushing hard for her amendments, but at the same time, she let down everyone on her environment vote. Give her a call and tell her you’re extremely disappointed, especially if you’re a Mainer.

“Susan Collins – Thank: She’s probably giddy because of the bad rap her rival Mainer is receiving from environment groups. Usually these two swap the role they played, as Collins is the harder of the two to get on board. Give her a call and send your thanks.”

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Good grades

Overall, both Snowe and Collins get good grades and high praise from environmental groups.

For 2005, the League of Conservation Voters, which includes votes on ANWR in its scoring, gave both senators a 70 percent grade. In February, the League announced its endorsement of Snowe for re-election, citing her efforts in “fighting for the environment in the face of a parade of remarkably bad legislation in Congress.” The endorsement comes before Democrats choose their candidate to oppose Snowe, evidence of the senator’s strong support among League members.

On April 26, the League will give Collins its Environmental Leadership Award. The award is reserved for lawmakers who have made special contributions to the environment. Snowe won the award in 2003.

Also in 2005, the Sierra Club used 19 votes to score lawmakers. The environmental group said Snowe voted against the environment four times; Collins, five times.

In 2003, the Natural Resources Council of America gave Snowe its Public Service Award, which honors “champions of our nation’s natural resources during their career in public service.”

“They both understand how important it is to protect the environment, and they understand how important protecting the environment is to Maine people,” said Brownie Carson, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Going beyond ANWR, Carson said that Maine’s senators have shown themselves committed to a broad range of environmental causes, including making sure that there’s appropriate investment in land conservation. “They have delivered funds that will help protect these fabulous places,” Carson said. “Overall, in very tough budget times, they’ve been very responsive to Maine.”

In February 2005, Environment Maine and several other environmental groups named both Snowe and Collins as Public Interest Champions for their roles in defending the Clean Air Act and ANWR and promoting cleaner energy.

“Senator Collins has been leading the way on cleaning up power plants, which is a true priority for Environment Maine,” Matthew Davis, an advocate for the organization, said at the time of the award.

“Certainly there are times when we haven’t been pleased with their votes,” Davis said. “They’re not perfect records, but they are very good, especially when compared to other Republicans in the Senate.

“Pretty much across the board on clean air, clean water and energy, you can count on both Snowe and Collins to be right,” Davis said.

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