And the understatement of the week goes to … Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
“These are not easy times to be in public office. They really aren’t,” Collins said Friday as she traveled home for the weekend from the nation’s capital, also known as the District of Calamity.
Collins should know. From the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s new education secretary to the reprimand of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren under the Senate’s now infamous Rule 19, Collins is to the current national angst what a lightning rod is to a bolt from on high.
The harder she tries to straddle the Great Political Divide, the more she winds up getting torched.
Let’s start with the DeVos nomination, which Collins opposed in a 50-50 deadlock broken only by the highly unusual intervention of Vice President Mike Pence.
Conservatives, including Gov. Paul LePage, were furious with Collins for breaking ranks with her party and announcing well in advance that DeVos would not get her vote.
At the same time, liberals lambasted her for letting DeVos escape the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (giving it the best acronym on Capitol Hill: HELP) with a favorable report to the full Senate.
Had Collins gone the other way in the committee’s 12-11 party-line vote, these critics say, she could have prevented the DeVos nomination from ever reaching the Senate floor.
Several times in recent years – see: Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork (Supreme Court justice); John Tower (Defense secretary) and John Bolton (United Nations ambassador) – presidential nominees have emerged from their confirmation hearings with either an unfavorable vote or no recommendation by the oversight committee.
Their fates before the full Senate ranged from approval (Thomas) to rejection (Bork and Tower) to stalemate, followed by a presidential “recess appointment” (Bolton).
Collins, who joined fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in ultimately opposing DeVos, offered this explanation for the apparent contradiction between her committee and floor votes:
“I truly believe that presidents are entitled to considerable deference in putting together their Cabinets. And that, to me, means that each and every senator should have a voice in deciding whether or not to support the nominee. It’s not something that should be shut off early in the process, particularly not at the committee level.”
Disagree with that if you must. But to those who insist that Collins would have stopped DeVos in her tracks by voting “no” in committee, history begs to differ.
“They’re just mistaken about that,” Collins said.
On to the Warren rebuke.
To recap: Warren, in a floor speech opposing the certain confirmation of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, read quotes from two historical giants: the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Upon reading Kennedy’s decades-old description of Sessions (at the time a U.S. attorney nominated for a federal judgeship) as “a disgrace to the Justice Department,” Warren was warned by the Senate’s presiding officer to refrain from further besmirching the senator from Alabama.
Warren went on to read the equally critical letter by King. That’s when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suddenly appeared and, to Warren’s clear surprise, invoked Rule 19.
The rarely invoked rule states, “No Senator shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
The presiding officer sided with McConnell. Warren appealed. And with that, the entire Senate was summoned to vote on whether to silence Warren.
Approaching Warren prior to the vote, Collins asked if they could speak privately. Warren agreed and they headed for an anteroom just off the Senate chamber.
“My goal was to be the peacemaker,” Collins said. “We talked for, I’d say, 15 minutes.”
Collins declined to reveal details of the private chat, but essentially she told Warren that the enforcement of Rule 19 would be bad for the Senate and if Warren agreed to rephrase her remarks, Collins would work on McConnell to back down as well.
“I will plead to being unsuccessful,” Collins said.
In other words, the two women found themselves on opposing courses that were, by then, impossible to alter?
“I think that’s fair,” Collins replied. “On both sides.”
The conversation ended. Warren went out of her way to hold open the door to the Republican side of the chamber for Collins, who is still hobbled by a broken ankle she suffered last fall.
“So there were no hard feelings there, for lack of a better word,” Collins recalled.
Collins then voted to invoke Rule 19 against Warren because, she said, the Senate’s nonpartisan parliamentarian had found Warren in violation and that was good enough for Collins.
“I think invoking Rule 19 is a big deal,” Collins said. “We do have rules in the Senate, we do have norms, that are intended to prevent the Senate debate from spinning out of control. It’s an attempt to have civility.”
So what about last year’s arguably worse violation by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who stood on the Senate floor and called McConnell a liar?
(That contradiction, it’s worth noting, was a tipping point for Maine Sen. Angus King. In a thinly veiled reference to Cruz, he asked the presiding officer if calling another senator a liar would violate Rule 19; after being told it would, King voted against silencing Warren.)
Collins noted that Cruz’s comment came late one night when virtually the entire Senate had gone home – not exactly the hyper-politicized atmosphere in which Warren sounded off.
That said, she added, “Absolutely, Rule 19 was definitely violated when Ted Cruz called Mitch McConnell a liar. And it should have been invoked.”
In retrospect, the Rule 19 smackdown probably helped Warren more than it hurt her – starting with the T-shirts now selling like hotcakes with McConnell’s tone-deaf quote, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” printed across the front.
“(McConnell’s) protest was to try to make people say, ‘She should not have violated the Senate rules,’ ” mused Collins. Yet “among (Warren’s) supporters, the reaction was, “Yay! She violated the Senate rules!’ So it is fraught with irony.”
As is this: To roundly condemn Collins for a committee vote on DeVos that made no difference, or a procedural wrist slap that ultimately amplified Warren’s declaration of conscience, is to overlook Collins’ larger role in these dark times.
Love her, hate her or pray quietly that she sees the light, Maine’s senior senator remains one of the nation’s most hopeful counterbalances to Trump & Company once the wheels truly fly off. And fly off they inevitably will.
Tighten your seat belt, Sen. Collins. This ride has just begun.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: