Collins's stint on the Hill taught her how to work with Democrats, who controlled the Senate off and on while she was a staff member. It also helped convince her that she, too, could have a career in elective office, although the seeds of that conviction had been planted years earlier.
As a high school senior, Collins and another student participating in a Senate youth program earned a trip to Washington and a two-hour visit with then-Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine). "I remember leaving her office and being so proud that she was my senator, and also thinking that women could do anything," Collins said.
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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In 1994, Collins became the first woman nominated for governor of Maine, but she finished third in a four-way general election won by Independent Angus King. She became the executive director of a resource center for family businesses at Husson College in Bangor. When Cohen decided not to run for reelection in 1996, Collins won the Senate seat by defeating former two-term governor Joseph Brennan (D).
In Congress, Collins's moderate, centrist approach has distinguished her in an atmosphere of increasing partisanship. Her bipartisan style was on display last year when she and 11 other senators of both parties pushed to limit President Bush's proposed $726 billion tax cuts to $350 billion over 10 years. They said Bush's plan would drain too much revenue at a time of war and rising deficits. In the end, the Senate trimmed the plan by $100 billion.
Collins describes herself as a moderate by nature -- a good thing, because Maine has elected both Democrats and Republicans statewide and has gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1992.
In Maine, "there's a premium placed on merit over politics when you are looking at issues," said Robert S. Tyrer, a former Cohen chief of staff who managed Collins's first Senate campaign. "And Susan always had that as her orientation."
That didn't keep her from being the target of attack ads during her 2002 reelection campaign. Democratic challenger Chellie Pingree criticized the senator for doing too little on health care and for backing Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001, which Pingree said mostly benefited the richest Americans.
Collins defended her record, disputing Pingree's figures -- and won with 58 percent of the vote.
In the new Congress, Bush will need the help of centrists in both parties on issues such as homeland security and privatizing part of Social Security, Collins said. "The magic number in the Senate is still 60, and as long as 60 votes are needed to enact major legislation, to overcome filibusters, I believe moderates such as myself will continue to play a key role in helping to bridge the partisan divide," she said.
One reason Frist tapped Collins for the intelligence bill is that her committee had no entrenched interests to protect at the CIA or the Pentagon. Her close relationship with Lieberman was another plus. Collins and Lieberman agreed to always vote together during the floor debate -- which, she said, ensured a floating coalition of votes strong enough to fend off challenges from Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), who saw the bill as a threat to the system their committees oversee.
Her performance drew plaudits, even from colleagues who have been critical of her. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has been unhappy with what he says is Collins's refusal to hold hearings on no-bid Iraq contracts awarded to Halliburton, formerly run by Vice President Cheney.
"We had our disagreement there," he said. "But I must tell you that I saw Susan Collins really go to work with the 9/11 intelligence reform bill. . . . I watched with some glee and admiration for her resistance to the trash that some of the House members wanted to throw into that bill."
Not everyone applauded. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), one of two members to vote against the bill, complained then that "the Senate is being stampeded into voting on major, far-reaching legislation." Among her staff, Collins is known as a demanding boss who works hard to serve her constituents and peppers her employees with assignments at all hours. "She uses her Blackberry incessantly, and on occasion she has even called herself a 'crackberry' addict," a former aide said.
Her Senate term ends in 2006, the same year Maine's Democratic governor, John E. Baldacci, would have to seek reelection to keep his job.
"I really haven't looked ahead to whether I would try to serve a third term or run for governor or what," Collins said. "I'm just happy right now being chairman of the committee and doing the best I can for the people of Maine."
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.