How Susan Collins became the Senate’s key deal-maker

If there's a big deal brewing in the Senate, chances are Maine Republican Susan Collins is involved.

"I'm reasonable. I like to get things done rather than just score political points," she says. "I remember the good ol' days in the Senate when we used to go to the floor and have long debates on bills and we accept some amendments, defeat others."


Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Consider Collins' last 24 hours.

On Wednesday, word came that Collins was trying to bridge differences between Democrats and Republicans on raising the minimum wage. She told reporters that she's looking for a way to raise the hourly wage "without harming our economy and causing hundreds of thousands of jobs to be lost." And she laughed when we suggested that she had once again found herself in the middle of protracted negotiations.

On Thursday, the Senate is expected to approve a bipartisan plan to extend federal unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed through the end of May. The agreement was written by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) -- but both men credit Collins with helping to secure the agreement.

Collins also plans to vote Thursday with Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee to declassify the executive summary of a 6,000-page report on the CIA's controversial interrogation program. She was considered a critical swing vote on the 15-member panel. While all Democrats on the committee are expected to vote in favor of declassification, and most Republicans are expected to vote against doing so, Collins and her Maine colleague, independent Sen. Angus King, didn't announce until Wednesday that they also will vote to release parts of the report.

Her work this week with both parties is no anomaly. Collins tried unsuccessfully last fall to cut a bipartisan deal to end the partial government shutdown and she signed on to an agreement last December to roll back sharp spending cuts known as the sequester. Her deal-making comes as senior women senators in both parties have earned credit in recent months for working diligently to ensure passage of significant legislation, including the appropriations, budget and farm bills.

Add it all up and you get this conclusion: Collins is the Senate power broker you've never heard of -- or at least the one that people often overlook or forget about. When most people think of Republicans willing to work across the aisle -- or at least maintain friendships with Democrats -- they're more likely to think of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Collins's former Maine colleague, Olympia Snowe, who called it quits in 2012.

Notably, Collins's search for bipartisan agreement comes as she faces reelection this year. While other colleagues are running to the political right to stave off primary challengers, nobody in Maine is mounting a serious GOP primary challenge to Collins despite her moderation, freeing her up to continue cutting deals without fear of potential backlash.

Part of the reason that members of both parties are willing to work with Collins is that her voting record matches her rhetoric. Of the 45 Republican senators, she has the 45th-most conservative voting record, according to the most recent National Journal vote rankings. Seen from another ideological view, she's the most liberal Republican in the Senate.

That record gives her credibility on both sides of the aisle. That's why she could tell reporters with authority Wednesday that based on conversations with several Democrats and Republicans, she knows that the current Democratic plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour won't pass the Senate. And, that's why she refused to say who's she's talking to about a potential compromise and to what level she thinks the minimum wage should be raised. Her colleagues trust that she won't tip her hand until she's on the verge of a deal.

It's also why Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Wednesday that he has "complete faith" in Collins's sincerity in at least trying to reach a deal on the minimum wage. He credited Collins, more than any other Republican, for maintaining a willingness to reach agreement with Democrats.

Collins isn't as powerful as Senate leaders, like Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and doesn't enjoy the national following of the likes of McCain, Schumer and younger senators with more ambitious political futures. But she may be more important to the business of actually getting things done -- even if most people outside of Maine don't know who she is.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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