U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on Monday drew a contrast with President-elect Donald Trump over relations with Russia and reiterated her opposition to repealing the Affordable Care Act without a viable replacement in hand, two key issues that are expected to be political flash points early in the Trump presidency.

The Republican senator spoke Monday with the Portland Press Herald editorial board on a number of topics that highlighted her disagreements with Trump. Collins did not support Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton for president.

In the aftermath of the Obama administration’s announcement that Russia almost certainly interfered in the presidential election – an attempt to favor Trump over Clinton by hacking into Clinton campaign emails – Democrats and some Republicans have called for an investigation.

While some have suggested that a special congressional committee be formed, Collins said the Senate’s standing Intelligence Committee, on which she sits, is “staffed up and ready to go” to conduct such a probe. Some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, support the formation of a select committee.

“This is an ongoing and very serious concern,” Collins said of Russian interference. “It’s designed to sow the seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of elections.”

Collins said she believes the consensus opinion of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russians were responsible for the hacking.

“I am concerned Donald Trump has said he does not believe the Russians were behind the intrusions into the political campaigns,” said Collins, who added that, in her view, President Obama’s response to Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the issue was not strong enough.

Collins also noted that Russia’s interests are often at odds with those of the United States, and called Russia’s foreign policy “increasingly brazen and aggressive,” citing its activities in Syria, Ukraine and Crimea as examples.

Collins’ positions on Russia are considered mainline Republican foreign policy by political observers.

But Trump has expressed doubts that Russia interfered in the presidential election and has promoted the idea that the U.S. should have friendlier relations with Russia. Trump has also nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, another signal of closer ties to Russia.

REPRESENTING DIFFERENT INTERESTS

Tillerson has had extensive business dealings in Russia, and there have been numerous media reports about potential conflicts of interest were Tillerson to be confirmed.

Collins said she doesn’t know Tillerson and will give him a fair hearing, but she wants to hear his views on representing different interests as secretary of state than he did as CEO of ExxonMobil.

“The questions I want to hear him answer are: Does he understand he’s representing the United States and that his past dealings are irrelevant? They can no longer be a factor,” Collins said.

But Collins said she was also impressed that Tillerson received the endorsement of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

On the Affordable Care Act, Collins further detailed her position that the health care law should not be repealed if there’s no suitable replacement plan in place.

Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are pushing plans that would immediately repeal the ACA and delay a replacement for three years. Media reports suggest the repeal could be on Trump’s desk shortly after he takes office Jan. 20.

“I’m a little concerned about the speed in which this is occurring,” said Collins, who opposed the ACA as it was being debated in 2009.

Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, Trump’s health and human services nominee, is advocating for repeal of the ACA and for stripping the subsidies that help those earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level afford individual insurance.

But Collins said removing the subsidies would cause individual insurance markets to collapse, especially if there’s no approved plan.

“If you defund the ACA, where do the funds come from for the replacement?” she said.

Collins said she would like to see incentives to buy insurance through tax credits as one option. But she said it has to be a workable plan that protects those who have already gained insurance through the ACA. More than 70,000 Mainers have purchased ACA insurance, most with financial help from the subsidies.

“I don’t want to see people drop through the cracks,” Collins said.

Since Republicans will control the incoming Senate, holding 52 of the 100 seats, it would take three Republicans to derail an ACA repeal if all Democrats and independents oppose it. Like Collins, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has said a replacement plan needs to be in place before a repeal vote.

COLLINS’ INFLUENCE ON THE RISE

Emily Brostek, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, a health advocacy group, said she’s encouraged that Collins is talking about the details and logistics of “repeal and replace.”

“Clearly she’s thinking about plans that would continue to give people options for health insurance, and that’s a good thing,” Brostek said. “We’re hearing talk about real solutions.”

Brian Duff, associate professor of political science at the University of New England, said Collins is positioning herself as one of four or five Republican moderates in the Senate who will wield a lot of influence over the Trump administration’s legislative priorities.

That will place an intense spotlight on Collins when controversial issues come before the Senate.

“We will be hearing a lot about Susan Collins in the national media,” Duff said. “She will be coming under a lot of fire.”

Collins said she’s embracing bipartisan solutions.

“I’ve acted as a bipartisan bridge between the parties,” Collins said, adding that she wants “to continue to try to build bridges and get things done.”

Kenneth Palmer, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Maine, said Maine’s delegation tends to place independence over falling in line with the views of a presidential administration, which explains why Collins is already taking positions that diverge from Trump’s.

“Senator Collins is in the Maine tradition of making one’s own decisions that tend to be in the center of the political spectrum,” he said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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