Wednesday January 11, 2012 | 08:24 PM

When Sen. Susan Collins addressed a crowd earlier today made up of defense contractors and current and retired Navy officers, the Maine Republican's topic was the need to build more heavy combat ships - as in more Bath Iron Works-built destroyers.

But Collins also bemoaned the polarized nature of Congress these days, saying that the failure of the debt reduction "Supercommittee" leaves open the possibility of automatic and crushing defense cuts on top of hundreds of billions already slashed from defense spending. And she drew a round of guffaws from the serious crowd in the process.

Collins already had complained about too much partisanship during her speech to the Surface Navy Association, an industry trade group, during her prepared remarks. She said she voted for the debt reduction deal last year because congressional leaders assured her the automatic-trigger cuts affecting defense disproprortionately would not occur because the Supercommittee would reach a deal.

"As a person committed to seeking solutions through compromise, it seemed to me that if ever there were a moment when members of Congress would put aside their partisan politics for the greater good of the nation, this would have been the time," Collins said in her speech. But instead, the failure of the bipartisan Supercommittee means automatic cuts are the "giant sword of Damocles hanging over our collective head," Collins said.

But it wasn't until the question and answer session that Collins drew all the laughs.

Asked about prospects for lawmakers getting their act together and accomplishing serious legislation during this election year, Collins responded by asking the audience if they remembered that old song, "I have high hopes? Well, I don't," Collins said in deadpan fashion.

After the laughs subsided, Collins said in a more serious vein that she's never seen a "more polarized situation" on Capitol Hill, which is especially troubling because of the serious nature of the problems facing the country.

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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