In praise of Susan Collins’ persistent bipartisanship — The Hill
After Susan Collins, the veteran Republican senator from Maine, cast the decisive vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October 2018, she instantly became the target of angry Democrats across the country determined to defeat her in 2020. Yet despite a tidal wave of activism, outside money and an impressive opponent, State House Speaker Sara Gideon, against her, Collins was reelected comfortably to a fifth Senate term, by nine points, even as Joe Biden won Maine by the identical margin. In a bitterly polarized America, where ticket splitting had become a thing of the past, Maine was the only state that produced such a divergence between the presidential race and the Senate.
The notoriously independent Maine voters got it right. Collins immediately repaid Maine’s voters, and the country, by spearheading a group of moderate senators — Democrats, Republicans and independent Angus King(Maine) — to produce a $900 billion coronavirus relief package, breaking the months- long stalemate that inflicted suffering on millions of Americans and threatened to derail any economic recovery. This year, Collins plunged back into the bipartisan effort to produce the largest piece of infrastructure legislation ever passed.
This is nothing new for Collins, who first came to Capitol Hill at the age of 21 to work for Congressman William Cohen (R-Maine), who served on the House Judiciary Committee considering the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Collins later worked for Cohen as a Senate staffer through 1986, and then returned to Maine to join the cabinet of Republican Governor John “Jock” McKernan. When Cohen unexpectedly decided to retire from the Senate in 1996, Collins upset Maine’s former Governor Joe Brennan (D) to win the Senate seat. Understandably elated to be a senator, Collins was struck by how much more partisan the Senate had become in the ten years since she left Capitol Hill.
From her arrival, Collins has tried to help recreate the Senate in which she came of age: a Senate based on trust and mutual respect, which could legislate through principled compromise and bipartisanship. She has also been determined to serve Mainers, and the country, as an independent player doing what she thinks is right.
In 2009, Collins defied great pressure from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to become one of only three Republicans who made it possible to enact President Obama’s economic stimulus legislation. In 2017, she joined John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in thwarting McConnell’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In 2020, Collins was the only Republican to vote against the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrettrammed through the Senate in the closing days of the presidential campaign. She later became one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial.
Other senators have stepped forward to work for a more bipartisan Senate — most notably, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), but also Mark Warner (D-Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), King and Murkowski. This year, Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has been a tireless architect of the bipartisan infrastructure effort.
The emergence of this group is heartening; as Warner put it after the strong Senate vote to advance the legislation: “Everybody knows what people’s strengths and foibles are. If this group of people had not worked together before, I don’t think we would have gotten there.”
But Collins was playing the independent, bipartisan role long before the others came to the Senate, and those decades of experience and accomplishment count. She was among the first Republican senators to congratulate Biden on his victory, stepping forward as others stayed silent, allowing Trump’s lies about election fraud to spread. Her friendship with Biden, grounded in 12 years in the Senate together and a similar approach to legislating, has been critical to legislative accomplishments since the election.
Collins cast the decisive vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh based on reasoning that was unpersuasive. And Collins undoubtedly regrets her naïve expression of confidence that Trump learned something from his first impeachment. But men and women who spend their lives in what Teddy Roosevelt memorably called “the arena,” should not be judged against some standard of perfection. Every person who has ever been in politics (with the possible exception of Lincoln) has made mistakes, or taken decisions that they later regret. It is Collins’ overall record that distinguishes her. America has been in a long period of poisoned, polarized politics, during which the Senate, which depends on bipartisan comity, has spiraled downward. Against that fierce tide, Collins has managed to be a real senator, putting country over party, and a positive force for good for America.
I was a Senate insider once, but that period ended 35 years ago. In writing about the contemporary Senate, I have chosen not to speak to current senators, including Collins (a friend from our Senate staff days). I rely on public sources to assess what senators and the Senate have said and done, or have not said and done. Having an idealistic view of what senators can accomplish and what the Senate should be, I was shocked and angered by the failure of McConnell’s Senate to perform the fundamental responsibility that our founders gave it; checking a renegade president whose abuses of power threatened our democracy, and whose irrational behavior caused several hundred thousand Americans to die needlessly.
It falls to this Senate, led by Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to work with Biden and the Democratic House to bring back our country. I have no doubt that Collins and the bipartisan group that has emerged will continue to play a crucial role.
Ira Shapiro, the author of “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis and Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?” is completing his Senate trilogy with a book about the Senate during the presidencies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.