Who Knew? Susan Collins Sure Didn't

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Comparing the Senate to middle school -- not a terribly big stretch -- the two senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, would be those girls who endlessly compete by mimicking each other. They wouldn't be BFFs (best friends forever), but they might hang out in the same clique, take the same classes and keep close tabs on each other.

As grown-ups, Snowe and Collins are moderate Republicans who though, as far as we know, don't call every morning to see what the other is wearing, do usually coordinate votes on key issues. That is why Collins was steaming mad yesterday when Snowe, without warning, switched her vote to side with Democrats to restore habeas corpus rights for terrorism suspects.

Snowe had initially backed Republican leaders by voting "nay" on the procedural motion to force a final vote. But once it became clear that the GOP had more than enough votes to win, Snowe switched her vote to "yea."

Snowe apparently did not inform her leadership of the switch, according to aides and senators familiar with the decision. Therefore, Collins never got the message, leaving her all alone.

Collins, who is facing a potentially tough reelection battle next fall against Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), an antiwar liberal, was visibly angry, according to eyewitnesses in the chamber's press gallery. She paced around the floor, confronting several members of the leadership.

"There was just a miscommunication there," explained Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the Republican whip in charge of counting votes. Lott said that although Collins and Snowe almost always try to vote similarly on key issues, "sometimes they get their signals crossed."

Washingtonpost.com's partisan unity database shows that Snowe has managed to be ever so slightly more liberal in her voting record. She has sided with a majority of GOP colleagues on 62.5 percent of roll-call votes this year, compared with 66.7 percent for Collins.

Collins's office had little to say about the vote switch, other than to maintain that she was not a flip-flopper. "She voted the same way the last time the issue came up," spokeswoman Jen Burita said in an e-mail. "She did not discuss her vote with Sen. Snowe and we don't have any idea why Sen. Snowe switched her vote."

Snowe spokesman John Gentzel said: "Senator Snowe ultimately decided on this procedural motion simply to allow for additional debate on the issue. I don't know if she had conversations with leadership."

Scandal Watch

For those who can't get enough of political scandals, pay close attention to local and federal court dockets. Three big trials and hearings are on tap within one week of one other.

The continuing saga of Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) will have its most pivotal moment on Wednesday. That is when, in Hennepin County District Court, a judge will hear Craig's attorneys make their case to withdraw his Aug. 8 guilty plea to disorderly conduct in the bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Craig, who surprised colleagues by returning to work this week, has said he intends to resign Sept. 30 if he cannot quash the plea. Court officials have said the hearing may last only 30 minutes but have not indicated how long a ruling will take. Even if he gets the plea withdrawn and gets a full trial in the local Minnesota court, Craig still has to contend with his colleagues on the Senate ethics committee.

Speaking of ethics, both ends of the Capitol have internal investigations into alleged misbehavior at airports. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, faces an investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for his Aug. 19 arrest on misdemeanor assault and battery charges involving a United Airlines employee at Dulles International Airport. The case is being handled in a Loudoun County court beginning Oct. 2 -- six days after Craig's hearing in the Twin Cities.

On that same day, the trial of Brent R. Wilkes is to begin in San Diego's federal courthouse. Wilkes is accused of conspiring to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) in exchange for tens of millions of dollars for government contracts. Wilkes is also accused of bribing Dusty Foggo, then a top CIA official. Wilkes has taken the unusual approach of subpoenaing 13 current members of the House to testify in his trial, a request currently being rejected by the House general counsel.

Some of the subpoenas involve lawmakers who served on key panels with Cunningham. But at least one lawmaker has no obvious connection to Cunningham: Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.).

Weller, who may be poised to announce his retirement, has other problems to contend with. He continues to maintain silence in response to questions about his undeclared financial holdings in Nicaragua, a neighbor to Guatemala, which is his wife's homeland and is where his father-in-law was a reputed dictator. Weller is back in the House after ducking votes all last week.

It has been two weeks since the Chicago Tribune published an exhaustive investigative piece on Weller's land deals in Nicaragua, which he did not report on his financial disclosures. A Weller spokesman declined to comment on the Tribune story. Amid reports that Weller might retire, Democrats are coveting the seat.

NFL Primary

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is taking his idea to have the NFL run presidential politics to new analogous heights. This time, the analogy hits home -- for Redskins fans and a certain underdog presidential candidate.

Yesterday, testifying before the Senate Rules Committee on his legislation to revamp the early presidential nominating process, Alexander explained: "If professional football were presidential politics, 'SportsCenter' would pick the Super Bowl teams after two preseason games."

Just look at what happened to the New England Patriots in 2003, Alexander said: They were clobbered by the Buffalo Bills in the season's first game. "Then the next week, the Washington Redskins ambushed the Patriots, which was as unlikely as it would have been for Dennis Kucinich to upend John Kerry in the New Hampshire primary."

To which Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a fellow former presidential candidate and co-sponsor of legislation with Alexander to create a federal system for the presidential primary system, said: "Right. The only problem that will follow Lamar now is to explain to the legion of Redskins fans here why he compared them to Dennis Kucinich. But I'll leave that to him."

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