Susan Collins can wield great power in the Senate – but will she?

SOMESVILLE, Nov. 13, 2020 – Edmund Muskie died in 1996, the same year Susan Collins was elected to the United States Senate where Muskie served 21 years before becoming secretary of state under Jimmy Carter. He was among Maine’s pantheon of high octane leaders – George Mitchell, William Cohen and, of course, Margaret Chase Smith, who died in 1995 at Age 97.

Cohen was the first Republican senator to vote for impeaching Richard Nixon. Mitchell was majority leader when the Clean Air Act was re-authroized in 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was passed.

William Cohen in 2014

Smith was the first woman to hold seats in both houses of Congress. She famously called out Joe McCarthy at much personal risk in a 15-minute speech on June 1, 1950 known as the “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she denounced “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.”


 She said McCarthyism had “debased” the Senate to “the level of a forum of hate and character assassination.” She defended every American’s “right to criticize … right to hold unpopular beliefs … right to protest; the right of independent thought.”

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”

Today, there are only four senators with more seniority in the Senate than Susan Collins. They are Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby and Jim Inhofe. Not only does Susan Collins own substantial seniority, she could play an outsized role as part of a small moderate bloc of the Senate.

David Brooks of the New York Times suggested this in an interview with Mitt Romney in which he floated the idea of just such a bloc, which presumably would include Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

” … deal-making and moderate senators could form bipartisan gangs around specific issues and try to force McConnell’s hand. Re-elected senators like Susan Collins have potentially immense power in a closely divided body,” Brooks wrote.

Romney told Brooks of areas where bipartisan approval was possible: fix prescription drug pricing and end surprise medical billing; an immigration measure that helps the Dreamers and includes E-Verify; an expanded child tax credit; green energy measures. Others include an infrastructure bank, shoring up American supply chains so we’re not so dependent on China, expanding non-college career pathways, industrial policy to benefit the Midwestern manufacturing base.

A moderate GOP bloc could ensure these succeed over the recalcitrance of a majority leader who is not interested in governing, Brooks wrote.

Other national media outlets are baying at the moon as well. “Collins’s GOP colleagues see Democrats’ failed campaign in Maine as giving her even more juice than before,” Politico wrote.

And the Washington Post: “Biden’s agenda may rest on centrist Republicans — and the return of a bygone Senate era.”

This week Susan Collins flashed signs of independence once familiar to Mainers when she said on Thursday the White House should give intelligence briefings to incoming Biden immediately. This was after she joined a handful of Republicans in congratulating Joe Biden. She also publicly has been agitating for a new stimulus bill to be passed before the end of the year.

Shortly after her win on Nov. 3, Collins received a congratulatory call from an old friend, Joe Biden. The two won overwhelming support from the Maine electorate made possible by split votes in huge numbers. It set up an interesting dynamic where both now own tremendous equity in Maine which may allow them to work together and lessens the risk for Collins.

Collins said she believes Biden should generally get his Cabinet confirmed, even as President Donald Trump refuses to concede, because she gives “great latitude to presidents in choosing their Cabinets.”

Biden “and I have a long-standing relationship that goes back many years and we worked on issues together in the Senate as well as when he was vice president,” Collins said this week. “It doesn’t mean that if he appoints someone who is way out of the mainstream, that I wouldn’t oppose them.”

All the post election comments augur well for a return to the Susan Collins with a bipartisan sensibility.

It harkens back to a time when she and Olympia Snowe were tabbed “The Sisters” in how they voted in unison as a small bloc of moderates from Maine.


But the media, as is its wont, overly dramatized that narrative. In truth Collins and Snowe couldn’t stand each other, as so well articulated by the Washington Post back when its Style section did such in-depth features:

The lesson is that you don’t have to be friends to be politically like-minded.

“Colleagues in both parties are now in awe of how much sway Collins has after handily winning a race in which she was largely outspent and didn’t lead a single public poll down the stretch,” Politico reported. “Whenever something contentious comes up in the Senate, one of the first questions will be: What does Collins think?”

“She’s sort of like Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who labored for Collins’ vote for six years as party whip. “You’re going to have to work for it to persuade her.”

Collins said at least eight Democratic senators have come calling since she won. And the first call was at 7:30 a.m. after Election Day from aisle-crossing supporter Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), who asked her: “What can we do next? How can we work together?”

“These were by and large my friends. It wasn’t Chuck Schumer calling me, let’s put it that way,” Collins said. “Some of them told me frankly that they’d been instructed by Chuck to not co-sponsor my bills, not work with me to advance legislation. Now, some of them followed that instruction from him but some did not.”

“What she went through and the way they lined up against her? I think that fully empowers her in the way she beat it back,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.).

The simple fact that Biden and Collins spoke recently shows how different her relationship is with the president-elect than it is with the current president. Collins works with top White House officials but rarely speaks to Trump.

But it remains to be seen how much fuel is still left in the tank for this heretofore independently leaning war horse. Politicians tend to become more risk averse not more. While Margaret Chase Smith voted against two of Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominations, she also publicly supported the Vietnam War.

It will take a lot for liberals to overlook Susan Collins’s ignominy – voting for Brett Kavanaugh, removal of the individual mandate which dealt the Affordable Care Act a big blow and against impeaching Donald Trump.

But if she can get the Senate back to a semblance of bipartisanship, all will be forgiven.

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