Maybe she thought we weren’t looking.
Maybe when U.S. Sen. Susan Collins sided not once, but twice with those crazy House Republicans on the eve of the federal shutdown, she hoped we’d be so dazzled by what she said on Sunday that we’d pay no attention to what she did on Monday.
Then again, maybe we’re not as inattentive as Maine’s senior senator seems to think we are.
To watch Collins in action last week, you’d have thought she was auditioning for a new edition of “Profiles in Courage.” Faced with the Republican-controlled House’s now-infamous linkage of the Affordable Care Act to keeping the federal government’s lights on, Collins voted to end debate on the measure in the Senate and put it to a straight up-or-down vote.
She was hardly alone. In all, 25 Senate Republicans supported the “cloture” motion that removed the threat of a filibuster, knowing full well that the House’s baggage-laden budget resolution would die an instant death in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Collins, however, took it one rhetorical step further, calling out her House colleagues for holding the entire federal government hostage simply because they hate all things Obamacare.
“I voted against Obamacare and have repeatedly voted to repeal, reform and replace it,” she said in a prepared statement Sunday. “But I disagree with the strategy of linking Obamacare with the continuing functioning of government – a strategy that cannot possibly work.”
What’s worse, Collins said, the House’s our-way-or-the-whole-country-gets-it approach was downright dangerous.
“What is abundantly clear is that the American people do not want dysfunction in Washington to lead to another government shutdown,” she said. “A shutdown will only further damage our struggling economy and reverse an already slow climb out of the recession.”
Tough talk, to be sure. So tough that when the House bill finally landed with a thud on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, you’d have fully expected Collins to join the Democratic majority in tabling the Obamacare attachments and sending a “clean” budget resolution back to the nut jobs at the other end of the U.S. Capitol.
But alas, she didn’t: Along with every other Republican senator, Collins voted against stripping the Obamacare provisions out of the bill.
Later Monday evening, with the government shutdown only hours away, the House sent the resolution back with a new set of Obamacare conditions attached.
Same result: Collins, who was already on record calling it flawed strategy that endangered the entire U.S. economy, fell in line and once again voted to keep those conditions intact.
Some Collins apologists say it was no big deal – with or without her, they point out, the House bill was doomed to failure in a Senate that at long last is standing up to the tea party-controlled House.
Still, in that lofty place reserved for true statesmen (and stateswomen), it was an opportunity lost. At a time when her country most needed a respected Republican to send a powerful message with her vote – as in, “Hey, House Crusaders! We’re done here! No more holding the entire country hostage!” – Collins instead did nothing.
Then, just for good measure, she did nothing again.
Tuesday morning, I called Kevin Kelley, Collins’ communications director, with what was essentially a logic question: If Collins spoke out publicly during the weekend against attaching Obamacare to the continuing budget resolution, why would she not subsequently vote to remove the Obamacare provisions from the resolution?
“Because you’re viewing it differently,” Kelley replied. “She is saying to the House, ‘Send a clean CR (continuing resolution) not attached to Obamacare in any way.’ They haven’t done that. They keep sending a CR that is tied to Obamacare in some way.”
“She supports these various (Obamacare) provisions, but she has told them all along, ‘You’re playing a game that you can’t win,’ ” said Kelley. “If the House Republicans would send a clean CR to the Senate, not tied to Obamacare, she would support it.”
Getting dizzy? Imagine how it felt after 20 minutes aboard the Collins Merry-Go-Round.
Loath as she may be to admit it, the simple truth is that Collins isn’t just frustrated with the lunatic elements in her own party. With her re-election primary eight months away, she’s scared to death of them.
She has good reason: The gavel had barely fallen on last week’s Senate cloture vote when Americans for Limited Government blasted Collins with a press release headlined, “Senator Collins supports Obamacare with cloture vote.”
“Senator Collins now owns Obamacare, having voted to invoke cloture on the continuing resolution that will certainly allow its funding to be implemented,” fumed Americans for Limited Government President Nathan Mehrens. “It is rare in Washington, D.C., that elected officials are forced to show their true colors.”
Think about that. Collins voted only to put the dead-on-arrival House measure to a vote. Then, when the time came to say “yea” or “nay,” she dutifully voted against stripping out the very components that Americans for Limited Government and the rest of the far-right so vehemently support.
Yet even that is enough to earn her the dreaded “Collins Supports Obamacare” stamp of disapproval from a group that clearly hates President Obama a lot more than it hates a new, private-sector-based health care initiative. (An initiative that, back in 1989, long before anyone had ever heard of Barack Obama, was a feather in the cap of the uber-conservative Heritage Foundation.)
Thus Collins now finds herself in that most unenviable of political positions: The left and middle are angry with her for not doing more to stop the federal shutdown, while the far right is furious with her for not doing more to stop Obamacare.
What’s a legislator to do?
Something brave. Something principled. Something that says to Maine and the whole nation, “Enough of this nonsense. We’ve got a country to run here.”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy wrote more than a half-century ago that three distinct pressures stand between politicians and acts of political courage.
The first is the need to be liked – hardly a problem for Collins, in view of her overwhelming electoral victories over these past 17 years.
The second is the desire to be re-elected – one that will in all likelihood be fulfilled next year with or without a tea party-induced primary challenge.
The third is pressure from constituents, from the average voter who simply wants to be heard to the special interest group that sees any and all compromise as a sign of cowardice, an unforgivable act of betrayal.
As Kennedy wrote all those decades ago, however, “Compromise does not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest test of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents.”
By her words, Susan Collins wants us to think she’s courageous.
But only by her votes can she prove it.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: