Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe rated a full two hours of President Barack Obama's time the day before he left for climate talks in Copenhagen this week _ more than any of her colleagues can claim _ as Democrats try to persuade her to vote for their health care overhaul.
She spoke Friday with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., as she does nearly every day. Top White House staffers visit the senator in her office.
Even so the moderate Snowe is far from committing to backing the legislation, and Democrats have all but ruled out getting her support when the bill comes to a vote in the next several days. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., remains one vote shy of the 60 he needs to get the health care bill passed. So until and unless Reid secures his top target _ Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. _ Snowe remains an undeniable factor, as she so often is.
Snowe herself is unmoved. Her position? The whole process is moving way too fast, and unless it slows down she can't get comfortable enough with the legislation to support it _ although she's also not ready to say she's voting "no."
"I'm not going to answer any hypotheticals," Snowe told a reporter who asked as she stood in the middle of a large press scrum just off the Senate floor this week.
As always Snowe, 62, was armed with a stack of folders, an elegant suit, and seemingly far more detailed knowledge of the health care legislation than any of her questioners. The third-term senator is not much of a delegator, and her staff jokes that she's been spending more than 100 percent of her time on the health care issue.
"I'm not at a point where I have all my answers," said Snowe, who recently sent a five-page letter posing numerous inquires to the Congressional Budget Office. They touched on issues, some seemingly arcane, including the impact of expanding a tax credit for small businesses, and sought a state-by-state analysis of the impact of the legislation on insurance premiums.
Snowe hasn't heard back yet and now accuses Democratic leaders of taking "political shortcuts because we're up against the Christmas holiday."
"I could see this scenario unfolding back in October," Snowe said.
October was when Snowe kept all of Washington guessing before voting in favor of the health overhaul bill in the Senate Finance Committee, becoming the first _ and only _ Republican senator to do so. "When history calls, history calls," Snowe said at the time.
Democrats remember how close Snowe kept her cards to the vest before casting that vote, and how she also complained then that the process was going too fast. The bill now before the Senate is not too far removed from what Snowe supported in committee, so some think that if she voted "yes" then, she could do it again.
Democrats also think it might be easier to get both Nelson and Snowe to support the legislation than to get just one of them. If both vote "yes," neither would risk being attacked as the critical 60th vote that allowed the legislation to pass. And if the whole thing falls apart now and Democrats are forced to regroup in January, they could need Snowe then.
Snowe is used to being courted by Democrats and voting against her Republican colleagues. She was one of just three Republicans to support Obama's economic stimulus bill.
Already the health care legislation reflects some of Snowe's priorities, such as a focus on small business, and a package of final amendments that Reid is expected to produce over the weekend could answer more of her concerns. Snowe said she's not holding out for benefits to specifically help Maine.
Democrats and the White House say they want to keep working with Snowe. Asked to comment on her, a White House spokesman provided a flattering statement that stopped short of saying he hoped for her vote.
It might _ or might not _ be too much to hope for.
"Sen. Snowe is a serious legislator who cares deeply about reforming our health insurance system," said the statement from White House spokesman Reid Cherlin. "We've been working with her throughout this process, and she has contributed many significant ideas and improvements to the bill."