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Opinion How Susan Collins can repair the damage she has wrought

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) stands in a subway car on Capitol Hill on June 9. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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The country is divided into two groups. The first thinks Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) practiced willful blindness to rationalize her votes confirming Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch — two of the five Supreme Court justices who last week voted to blow up the basic rights of millions of women by overturning Roe v. Wade. This explanation assumes Collins’s aim was to survive any primary challenge from the right in her 2020 reelection.

The second camp posits that Collins was sincere in her belief that two dedicated right-wing nominees hand-selected by the Federalist Society would not overturn Roe. In short, she was duped.

Collins would have us believe it is the latter. After the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health was released, she asserted in a statement, “This decision is inconsistent with what Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh said in their testimony and their meetings with me, where they both were insistent on the importance of supporting long-standing precedents that the country has relied upon.” She then declared that she wanted to preserve Roe in statute, citing her support for the Reproductive Choice Act, which she introduced. (When a similar, Democratic bill came to the floor, she voted no. Her excuse: “It doesn’t protect the right of a Catholic hospital to not perform abortions.” In other words, millions of women whose rights she pledged to defend should take a back seat to … Catholic hospitals?)

The Opinions Essay: Susan Collins confronts a moment of truth

At the time, the entire abortion rights movement and the vast majority of legal pundits argued that these justices would without doubt relegate women to the status of what Ruth Bader Ginsburg called “less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

So what did Kavanaugh actually tell Collins? The New York Times reports that he plied Collins with plenty of glossy language:

“Start with my record, my respect for precedent, my belief that it is rooted in the Constitution, and my commitment and its importance to the rule of law,” he said, according to contemporaneous notes kept by multiple staff members in the meeting. “I understand precedent and I understand the importance of overturning it.”
“Roe is 45 years old, it has been reaffirmed many times, lots of people care about it a great deal, and I’ve tried to demonstrate I understand real-world consequences,” he continued, according to the notes, adding: “I am a don’t-rock-the-boat kind of judge. I believe in stability and in the Team of Nine.”

It didn’t take much to see that he was not actually promising to uphold Roe. And it matters little if Collins, in voting to confirm him, was being a deceitful careerist or a gullible fool. She was the 50th vote to confirm Kavanaugh and shares responsibility for the consequences.

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Collins is not alone on this one. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) also could have stopped Kavanaugh and Gorsuch with a “no” vote. Now he, too, pleads surprise he was misled. He claimed in a statement to be “deeply disappointed” and insisted he had “trusted” the two justices. Now, he is “alarmed” and would support legislation to codify the rights Roe protected, he said. Yet he has emphatically refused to alter the filibuster, making promises to support items such as voting rights and the codification of Roe entirely meaningless.

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So like Collins, Manchin was either willfully blind (not coincidentally, he faced reelection in deep-red West Virginia just weeks after Kavanaugh’s confirmation) or grievously gullible. Many political watchers have come to expect this sort of double talk from a Democrat in a state that Donald Trump twice won handily.

But what about Collins, who has made her career as an “independent,” pro-choice New Englander? Certainly, she may be content to leave behind a legacy of untold damage to American women and to be the subject of endless ridicule. If she does not relish the label of “fake pro-choice senator who unraveled abortion rights,” however, she can do something about it.

She could vote with the majority on a bill to codify not only Roe but other rights of privacy that Justice Clarence Thomas has targeted. In fact, she and Manchin could bring one bill or a series of bills to the floor and agree to make a singular exception in the case of their detrimental reliance on Supreme Court justices.

Alternatively — or in addition — she and Manchin could introduce legislation to impose term limits on justices, thereby ensuring that the country will not be stuck with their mistakes for decades. Collins could also vote to impose ethical guidelines on the court to cover a variety of issues (e.g., conflicts of interest, full financial disclosure).

In these efforts, though, Collins and Manchin would have to agree to suspend the filibuster. Do they care enough about their calamitous votes to try to mitigate their results?

While she’s at it, Collins might also consider repairing the damage wrought by the president she contended had learned his lesson. (She voted to acquit Trump in the first impeachment trial, emboldening him to engage in worse mischief. Manchin had the good sense to vote to convict.)

Collins, along with Manchin, is purportedly working to fix the Electoral Count Act to remove the uncertainties that Trump and his ace legal team (John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, Jeffrey Clark) tried to exploit. If her efforts help prevent the next coup, she might secure a counterweight to her disastrous legacy on abortion.

In sum, it is not politically or morally sufficient for Collins or Manchin to simply holler “I was tricked!” when the rights of millions of Americans are at stake. Whether she was deceived, when a public official make an error so egregious, it is incumbent on her to fix the damage. If Collins refuses to do so, voters will draw the conclusion that she wasn’t that surprised — or that sorry — that she enabled the destruction of women’s fundamental right to reject forced birth. But voters eventually will render their verdict on Collins and the rest of the GOP.