A Nov. 15 profile of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) gave an incorrect date for the end of her Senate term. Collins's term runs through 2008, not 2006. (Published 12/1/04)
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.
"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.
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.
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.