November 23, 2012

Collins’ clout: Is it likely to grow?

Experts believe a shrinking GOP moderate caucus may empower a centrist like Maine’s new senior senator.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - The departure of Olympia Snowe and other like-minded moderates from the U.S. Senate next year could further elevate Republican Sen. Susan Collins as a swing vote despite a larger Democratic majority, say some political observers.

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Sen. Susan Collins

Collins, meanwhile, said she is optimistic that some of the new and returning senators will prove wrong the predictions of a "disappearing center."

"My hope is, now that the elections are behind us, that we will see a more constructive and bipartisan approach," Collins said.

Despite an aggressive Republican campaign to retake the Senate, Democrats expanded their caucus from 53 to 55 members after accounting for Maine Sen.-elect Angus King, who has affiliated himself with the Democrats.

The policy often blamed for helping to foster partisan gridlock -- the Senate filibuster -- in many ways boosts the potential influence of moderates as the majority party scrambles to reach 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

During a close vote, "you're always asking who are they going to reach out to, who are those five Republicans?" said Ross Baker, a former senior adviser to both Republican and Democratic senators who teaches political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "And, of course, at the top of everybody's list is Susan Collins."

Both of Maine's Republican senators consistently rank among the more bipartisan senators in ratings compiled by media outlets.

Earlier this year, Collins and Snowe ranked first and third, respectively, in separate measures of bipartisanship published by Congressional Quarterly and Bloomberg Government. Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts was No. 2 in both rankings, according to reports.

The Senate has been paralyzed by a historic number of filibusters this session -- sometimes aided by Snowe, Collins and Brown siding with their Republican colleagues.

But Collins and Snowe broke ranks from time to time, endorsing President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package and casting key votes to end the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy for gay service members.

Snowe's retirement and Brown's defeat at the hands of a decidedly liberal opponent means the moderate Republican caucus will shrink next year.

"In theory, she is in a position of power because the Democrats always need 60 votes to get anything done," said Sarah Binder, a scholar of congressional process and partisanship at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution.

Collins said she doesn't expect to be a lonely moderate voice.

"The Democrats clearly gained two seats in the Senate, but they did so by running pretty conservative Democrats in states that traditionally vote Republican, so I see an expanded center," Collins said. "My hope is, they will be willing to work with the moderates on the Republican side and together we can form a cohesive group that can push through some solutions" rather than partisan positions.

With so many veteran senators retiring after this year, Collins will climb from 36th to 27th on the seniority ladder of the 100-member Senate. Among Republicans, Collins will be the ninth-highest member and the most senior Republican woman.

Seniority affects a senator's clout and his or her ability to land positions on powerful committees, where most legislative work occurs.

Collins will lose her title as ranking minority member -- something close to co-chair -- on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because of Republican leadership term limits. But Collins is in line to become the ranking member on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which reviews such programs as Medicare.

She also hopes to continue serving on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for budget and spending decisions, including which shipyards receive Navy contracts.

"That's a committee where I am able to do a lot of good in the state of Maine," Collins said.

(Continued on page 2)

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