At the frenzied peak of congressional negotiations over the federal stimulus in 2009, there was a surplus of phone calls and e-mails in U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office, but a deficit of Diet Coke.

“Literally, every six to eight seconds a new (e-mail) would come through from all over the country,” recalled Steve Abbott, Collins’ former chief of staff. “In our front office, the phones would be ringing and when you hung up, it would ring.”

The demand on phones and BlackBerries was only surpassed by that on Capitol Hill vending machines, as the flocks of lobbyists and staffers roaming the halls drained supplies of a key, all-night negotiating ingredient.

“It was like an encampment,” he said. “You’d get to soda machine after soda machine in the Senate complex and they were all out of Diet Coke. It was just one of those things where everybody was there all the time and the cupboards were bare.”

Negotiating the stimulus marked a period of growing influence – and searing scrutiny – for Collins, a centrist Republican, in the Senate, as its partisan makeup thrust Maine’s junior senator into the heart of the country’s top policy debates.

I enjoy playing a key role in the U.S. Senate, but it’s been very difficult to be in a pivotal position on every single major issue, on every single vote,” she said. “The excessive partisanship has eroded the trust among members and that is corrosive and destructive. There’s fault on both sides.”

Collins has aided Democrats by providing key votes on bills that, if not for her support, would have failed. It started with the stimulus, when Collins and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, pared the bill’s overall cost down from the House’s $900 billion to $787 billion.

In tandem, the senators removed certain spending initiatives – like millions for new sodfor the National Mall — and refocused the bill on traditional infrastructure spending like roads and bridges.

“I knew that those provisions, that funding, would translate into real jobs for real people in Maine,” said Collins. “Indeed, one of the construction company executives who met with me a few months after the stimulus bill (was signed) told me that the recovery act had caused him to hire 100 people who otherwise would not have been put to work.”

Liberal groups in Maine and Washington D.C., however, criticized Collins for helping to cut billions of proposed financial aid to states, education funding and efforts to make federal buildings more energy efficient from the legislation.

Bloggers labeled her “Swine Flu Sue” in April 2009, for example, for working to strip $900 million in pandemic flu preparation from the stimulus after cases of H1N1 flu started to spread across the nation.

John Nichols, writing in the liberal weekly ‘The Nation,’ also accused Collins of playing politics with public health and the economic recovery.

“That makes her about as bad a player as you will find in a town full of bad players,” he wrote. “But Senate Democrats bent to her demands. That makes them, at the very least, complicit in the weakening of what needed to be a muscular plan.”

Collins said the funds did not meet stimulus goals of being “temporary, timely and targeted,” and were better passed through the normal budgeting process.

She ultimately voted for the measure, joined by Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania from her party. Their votes secured its passage, which angered many in the GOP.

“Republican senators are on notice,” said Scott Wheeler, executive director of the National Republican Trust PAC, in a CNN interview. “If they support the stimulus package, we will make sure every voter in their state knows how they tried to further bankrupt voters in an already bad economy.”

While partisans took their licks at Collins, those in the political middle instead described her as an ally.

“(Collins) played an important role in the so-called economic recovery act last year and she negotiated hard for some things to come out and some things to stay in or be added that she thought were important to Maine and the country,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats.

Collins said the disparagement from outside and inside her political party was worth enduring to make the right moves for Maine and the nation.

“People feel very strongly about their positions and you are going to be subjected to very pointed criticism from both sides and that’s hard,” she said.

Though some Democrats lament the concessions required to secure Collins’ and Snowe’s support, the Obama administration praises their efforts.

In an interview, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Collins and Snowe are “focused negotiators” who push for solutions.

“They are independent of party or partisanship and they come at (legislation) with a sense of pragmatism,” he said in a recent interview.

“They just try to see, what is the net effect of this? On balance, does this achieve the goals? Is this the best way to do what needs to be done? And then they call them like they see them.”

Health Care

After the stimulus, health care reform took center stage in the Senate.

Collins voted against health care reform, as did all Republicans. It passed on a party-line vote, after Democrats used an uncommon procedural tactic called reconciliation to overcome the threat of a Republican filibuster.

Collins did not play a role in either drafting or negotiating the legislation, nor did her committees — Homeland Security, Appropriations and Armed Services -— review it. She did, however, file several amendments to reform on the Senate floor. All were denied votes by Democratic leadership.

“Our goal was to provide more affordable choices,” Collins said on MSNBC in December 2009, alongside U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, with whom she co-sponsored three amendments.

The provisions she sponsored aimed at increasing the array of health care plans available for employers and workers to choose from, creating a catastrophic coverage option and providing incentives for insurers to keep premiums low.

“I was shut out on the floor,” Collins said, looking back on that debate. “That (made) no sense at all and that really poisoned the atmosphere.”

Financial Regulation

Of the signature efforts of the Obama administration, financial regulation reform took the longest to emerge in the Senate. Health care reform had frayed bipartisan partnerships in Senate committees, which left “FinReg” without 60 supporters to block a GOP filibuster.

Ultimately, financial regulation passed through Senate with support from only three Republicans: Collins, Snowe and newly elected Sen. Scott Brown from Massachusetts. Each exacted changes into the final bill.

Collins’ largest contribution to the bill was putting more stringent capital requirements on big banks, by equalizing their standards to that of smaller banks. This move, Collins said, was derived from her experienced as Maine’s top financial regulator in the 1980s.

“The capital standards provisions should help make banks be stronger,” Collins said. “We have had a few problems in Maine and we haven’t had a bank fail. But there is a cascade of consequences for Main Street businesses in our state when Wall Street engages in excessive risk because the result is that it tightens up the credit markets.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, chairman of the Banking Committee and one of the architects of financial reform, said Collins, along with Snowe, saw ways improve the bill, even if they didn’t agree with all its provisions.

“What makes (them) seem so special is that so few (senators) do that anymore,” he said. “In this case, both made significant contributions to the bill itself.”

Dodd added the changes sought by Collins would not only benefit help Maine, also the nation.

“Susan’s concern about capital requirements are hardly uniquely Maine considerations,” he said.

ECONOMY

To combat the recession, lawmakers have struggled to balance short-term policies to stimulate the economy — like extending unemployment benefits — against long term concerns about the swelling federal deficit.

This dynamic was most at play in the recent $26 billion Medicaid and education spending bill, over which Collins’ exercised great influence.

She — along with Snowe — insisted the bill follow pay-as-you-go standards; in other words, its expense be offset by budget cuts or increased revenues. It did, based on their concerns, although the process by which it passed did not receive universal praise.

Maine’s preeminent policy organizations, for example — the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy and the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center — both extended only grudging appreciations of the senators’ efforts. 

“They are clearly moving the state in a direction where they are trying to wean the state off the federal credit card, maybe not as quickly as I would like, but dramatically moving in that direction,” said Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of MHPC. “(This) really does reflect that this fiscal accountability is mainstream in the moderate caucus.”

Christopher “Kit” St. John, executive director of MECEP, said he was pleased with the senators’ final votes in the support of added funds for Medicaid and education — even if they shifted their positions on it between March and June.

“We were anxious for their support, grateful for their ultimate support, but a little bit puzzled about the twists and turns the bill took,” he said.

FUTURE INFLUENCE

Looking ahead, Collins says her seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee will continue to reap benefits for Maine.

Collins points to the creation of a one-year pilot project, written into an appropriations bill, to exempt Maine’s federal highways from the 80,000-pound federal truck weight limit as an example of a benefit.

In Maine, observers appreciate her influence, but may not always understand her means of wielding it.

L. Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College in Waterville, points to Collins’ opposition to pending campaign finance legislation drafted by Democrats, since she’s supported even more stringent campaign finance reforms, such as the landmark McCain-Feingold bill, in the past.

“It’s not half a loaf, it’s 90 percent of a loaf of what she wants,” Maisel said of the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York. “To hold it up for the other 10 percent … maybe it’s smart politics, but I don’t get it.”

Others think Collins, and Snowe too, will have their independence tested by political winds. Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, predicts the pair will veer to the ideological right if the November elections goes as he anticipates.

“I think they are going to go our way, and when they do, I think the senators will see that, and they’ll try to mirror what they think people want,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said the influence of Collins and Snowe could grow in November’s elections, if Democrat majorities in the House and Senate slip or, as he hopes, tips in favor of Republicans.

McConnell only had praise for the ladies from Maine, as they’ve been called in the national press, in a recent interview.

“It’s good that we have members like Susan and Olympia who do talk to Democrats and who look for solutions in the center,” he said. “I think they have been independent, both of them, kind of in a Margaret Chase Smith tradition. They are with us when they think we’re right and not with us when they think we aren’t.”

Collins is not up for re-election until 2014. She has not yet decided on whether to seek a fourth term, according to her staff. Whether she does may hinge on how she fares over next four years in the middle of the Senate.

It’s a role she’s played well, according to Maisel, a Democrat.

“Sen. Collins, it seems to me, is well-placed as a pivotal person and has demonstrated acute political acumen in being the pivotal voice at certain places,” he said.

Sen. Lieberman, the independent, puts it another way.

“She, in the old Kenny Rogers term, knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em and it makes her very effective,” he said with a chuckle. “And let me tell you, she’ll hold ‘em until the last second and only then will she decide that she has to fold ‘em.”

Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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