As a Republican senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe was known for her willingness to stand alone. A moderate with independent views, she had substantial influence in the health care debate as both sides vied for her vote. Earlier this year she left the Senate, out of frustration, she says, with the inability to get anything done.
Her new book, Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress, is both a political prescription and a personal memoir. In it, she describes growing up and withstanding tragedy; when she was 8, she lost her mother, and a year later, her father died of a heart attack.
Snowe joins NPR's David Greene to talk about how her early difficulties fostered independence, why the Senate's problems aren't institutional, and how a five-day workweek could help Congress get things done.
On how she learned of her father's death when she was 9, while attending boarding school
"I ran down to the main building to make a call to the restaurant [where he worked] to have some kind of affirmation. It was a collect call, and the man who answered the phone at the restaurant told the operator ... 'I don't want to tell [her] their father is dead.' And so of course I heard that. ... In those days, many times you could hear the conversation as the operator is negotiating the collect call ... and so the man was obviously caught in a very difficult situation, not realizing, probably, that I was at the other end and could hear it. ... I threw the phone against the wall and ran out of the building, ran up the hill, obviously distraught."
On the independence she learned as a child after her parents died, and how she carried that independence into her career
"[I learned] to stand alone in some ways. Not that I was alone, but nevertheless you feel somewhat on your own at that early age, making decisions — that somebody's not always there to make decisions for you, to think for you, to work through your problems on a day-to-day basis. So it does engender some confidence and the independence that ultimately I derived from those experiences."
On whether her elevated influence during the health care debate is an indication that there's something fundamentally wrong with the U.S. Senate
"The United States Senate wasn't designed to be a majority-rule institution. It was designed to include and accommodate the rights of the minority and small states as well as large states. And so I think that the balance is right. ...
"It's actually the human behavior — the institution is flexible and resilient. It's the members of the Senate that have changed the equation, regrettably. If you think about it, how many major events that we've managed to transcend on a bipartisan basis, you know, in the 1990s or in the early 2000s, and think about what we transcended: We had a government shutdown, we had impeachment, we had [a] 50-50 Senate. But we did that because we recognized ultimately that we would have our differences but we could overcome them. And that's what's not happening and transpiring today. It's all about the politics. It's leveraging one's political position to the disadvantage of the other side so that they can advance it in the next election."
On why she left the Senate
"It was a hard, cold reality that descended upon me in a very short period of time, actually, because I had been fully immersed in running for re-election for the better part of two years, and traveling the country and of course my state. So I was essentially in a good place organizationally and financially to win re-election, but I became concerned about the tenor in the Senate and what would transpire over the next six years, and came to the regrettable conclusion that it might not change.
"So then I began thinking about my role and how I could best contribute. Was it better to work on the outside to reaffirm the voices of those people who are so frustrated and want things to change and want their government to work? And I thought that that's where I could best contribute at this stage of my life."
On one of her book's recommendations: a five-day workweek for Congress
"Isn't that amazing? To work a five-day workweek? Because what happens is that, you know, on Mondays — at least in the Senate — Monday night we'd have what you'd call a bed-check vote. Just to get, you know, the machinery of the Senate up and running so that we can start the committee process on Tuesday morning ...
"By Thursday, you know, jet fumes, the smell of jet fumes. ... Everybody's heading home, wanting to know when they can adjourn on Thursday so they can leave. [This] very short version of a workweek makes it very difficult to deal with complex issues. And basically they're not even getting the routine matters of business accomplished. We can't pass a budget, which is preposterous."
On whether she's worried that the gridlock in the Senate can't be fixed
"I don't worry about that. I never think about what I can't do. No, absolutely not. It has to change, for the country. People deserve ... better representation. They deserve institutions that are going to solve problems. That means the president and the Congress have to work hand in glove and override their political differences or their political ambitions for the sake of the country. There's never a point now where they put the politics behind them. I mean, they're already talking about the 2016 presidential campaign! We just had an election. Can we now concentrate on the future of this country?"