By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Six years ago, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was working to broker a deal with a Democratic colleague that would steer $20 billion in relief to struggling state governments when she was abruptly called into the office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R). Waiting there was Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who had a stern message. He warned her -- "very strongly," according to Collins -- that Republicans, who controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House, were in no mood to compromise with moderate Democrats.
Collins stood her ground and, with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), won the aid they were seeking.
In recent weeks, Collins has once again been the focus of White House attention, this time as the central player in a deal that saw a massive stimulus package trimmed to below $800 billion in order to win the critical support of a trio of Republicans.
Again working with Nelson, Collins was wooed directly by President Obama and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, drawing the consternation of many of her fellow Republicans in the process.
Collins is unmoved by the private criticism. "My constituents did not send me here to sit on the sidelines," she explained in an interview Tuesday after casting her vote to move the compromise forward.
For many Republicans, Collins's role in the negotiations is symbolic of what they view as Obama's pledge of bipartisanship yielding to a system of governance that focuses on winning just enough Republican votes to pass Democratic legislative priorities. With 58 senators in the Democratic caucus, Obama still needs some Republican support to ensure that his agenda can get through the filibuster-prone chamber.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), walking alongside Collins on their way to Tuesday's weekly GOP luncheon, summed up the negotiating approach Democratic leaders took with Collins and other moderates as: "Here's the bill. How can I buy your vote?"
Seeking compromise is nothing new to Collins, but her current starring role came as Democrats were pursuing one of the largest spending bills in the nation's history at a time of mounting economic crisis. And she arrives at this moment a unique figure: a New England Republican who has not only survived the political wreckage of the past four years but has thrived in turbulent times for her party. Winning more than 61 percent of the vote last fall, Collins crushed a well-funded challenger who had the backing of millions of dollars in advertising from national Democrats; she outpolled Obama in Maine.
Secure at home, Collins is free to take stands that might aggravate both ends of the political spectrum -- standing up to Obama by refusing to support the original stimulus legislation and later bucking her own party by supporting a compromise plan that is still twice as expensive as an alternative crafted by close friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). She learned the art of compromise as a top aide to Sen. William S. Cohen (Maine), a moderate Republican senator from 1979 to 1997 who, after retiring, joined President Bill Clinton's administration as defense secretary.
She has also not been shy about voicing concern about the direction of her party. At a recent one-day retreat at the Library of Congress, Collins told her Republican colleagues that it was time they began to openly court moderates such as herself.
"I'm concerned that our party is becoming increasingly a regional party," she said in the interview. The depressing political data points roll acridly off her tongue: 22 races for House seats in New England, along with four Senate races, and six states up for grabs in the presidential contest last fall. "I was the only Republican to win federal office in all of New England, and I think that's a dangerous trend," Collins said.
In their current endeavor, she and Nelson were brought together by a desire to curb what they saw as the bad spending habits of a Democratic leadership dominated by liberals. Nelson said he first realized that these centrist talks would succeed when the group first gathered around the table in one of the several committee rooms they used to convene their rump caucus.
"Doing nothing was not an option," he said, describing the ethos in the room.
Only a half-dozen or so Republicans participated in the talks, reflecting the decimated ranks of GOP centrists, and some of those Republicans would be more accurately described as mainstream conservatives. As the discussions progressed and the bill size stayed well above their ceiling of $700 billion, the other Republicans dropped out of the talks, leaving just Collins and Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) as possible GOP votes for Obama's plan. But Collins's spirits rose when she saw roughly a dozen Democrats in the room.
"That made me realize we could have some leverage," she said.
By Friday evening, Emanuel had entered talks with the centrists, and the three Republicans made the leap to support the legislation this week.
Nelson said it is "too soon to know" whether the centrist group from the stimulus talks would be the framework for future legislative battles, such as Obama's push for a national health-care system.
At least one conservative group has targeted the three Republicans, particularly Specter, who may face a primary challenge from the right when he seeks reelection next year. But Collins plans to continue her middle-of-the-road approach in the Senate, knowing that her constituents approve and hoping her Republican colleagues will see her 2008 victory as a road map for their own futures.
"I see it as an affirmation of the approach I take to governing," she said.