Maine Sen. Susan Collins managed to keep busy last week, a down period for most members of Congress awaiting Tuesday's start of the lame-duck legislative session.
Over five days, the moderate Republican flew more than 40 hours round-trip to Cape Town, South Africa, ran a seminar on terrorism at an international conference there, and kept tabs long-distance on the fate of her legislation to reorganize U.S. intelligence agencies.
Sen. Susan Collins, center, confers with, from left, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) to resolve differences over intelligence reform legislation, which is at an impasse.
(Dennis Cook -- AP)
Title: Senator (R-Maine).
Education: Bachelor's degree in government, St. Lawrence University, Canton, N.Y.
Career highlights: Chairman, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee; founding executive director, Center for Family Business, Husson College, Bangor, Maine, 1994-96; deputy treasurer, state of Massachusetts, 1993; New England administrator, U.S. Small Business Administration, 1992-93; commissioner of professional and financial regulation, state of Maine, 1987-92; staffer for then-Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), 1975-87.
Pastimes: Cooking, reading, kayaking, ice skating.
Favorite books: "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo and "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel.
Favorite movie: "The Wizard of Oz."
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"It's an honor to be asked" to participate in the Atlantic Conference, a joint project of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the South African Institute of International Affairs, Collins said in an interview before departing last week. "But frankly, had I known that I was going to be in the midst of the intelligence bill, it is an honor that I would have let go by me. I didn't feel that I could renege, so I'm doing this insane trip."
Whether in Africa or in Washington, Collins, 51, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, has been at the center of several significant policy fights lately.
In July, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) put her in charge of crafting a bill in response to the Sept. 11 commission's findings that the nation's intelligence services had failed as a bulwark against the terrorist attacks.
After much wrangling, the bill, which would create a single Cabinet-level official to oversee intelligence activities, grew to more than 500 pages. The Senate passed it last month 96 to 2. Now Collins and her co-sponsor, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), are trying to reconcile the measure with a far different House bill that would give more limited powers to a new national intelligence director.
Negotiations have been at an impasse, with the bipartisan Senate team and House Democrats backing the Senate bill, and House Republicans holding their ground. Top negotiators are scheduled to meet again early this week.
"My hope is that the White House, now that the election is over, will get more involved in the negotiations," Collins said. "The White House had very capable staff involved in the negotiations, but I think we need higher-level help."
Collins also has been at the heart of a lower-profile but important debate over how to reorganize the financially troubled U.S. Postal Service, a $67 billion-a-year entity. Her bill would grant the Postal Service more flexibility in the services it offers and the prices it charges.
The bill is all but dead for this Congress, although supporters hope to revive it early next year.
Collins also has emerged as one of the key lawmakers overseeing the administration's efforts to rewrite civil service rules. Officials say restrictive personnel systems make the bureaucracy difficult to manage in an era that demands faster-responding agencies. Collins has supported bills granting the administration authority to make big changes but has also taken Defense Department officials and others to task for failing to preserve employee rights.
"We don't have a better friend in the Senate than we do in Senator Collins," said Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, a union with 40,000 members at Defense and NASA. "She is, to me, the voice of reason."
All of it is a long way from Collins's childhood in Caribou, a town of 8,300 people near the Canadian border. Her life in public service is not altogether a surprise, however. Both of her parents served as mayor of Caribou, and four generations of family on her father's side served in the state legislature.
As a college student, Collins volunteered for Republican William S. Cohen's successful campaign for a House seat in 1972. She interned in his D.C. office in 1974, during a summer dominated by the Watergate hearings. After graduation in 1975, Collins signed on as a full-time legislative assistant. For the next 12 years, she held various staff positions under Cohen (who won a Senate seat in 1978), rising to be staff director of one of the Governmental Affairs subcommittees.