Republican Sen. Susan Collins prepares to meet with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at her office on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “We had a very good, thorough discussion,” the Maine lawmaker said afterward. Associated Press/Jose Luis Magana

In what could be a pivotal moment in the fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine met with the nominee Tuesday in Washington and said the two talked “at great length” about abortion rights.

It was Kavanaugh’s first meeting with the centrist Republican, who told national media after the meeting that she hasn’t made up her mind after the two-hour session in which the two discussed several issues.

Abortion rights activists have lobbied furiously against Kavanaugh, arguing that he is likely to overturn or gut the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortions, and questions also have been raised about the nominee’s views on executive power and the Affordable Care Act.

“We talked about whether he considered Roe (v. Wade) to be settled law. He said he agreed with what (Chief Justice John Roberts) said at his nomination hearing, in which he said it was settled law. We had a very good, thorough discussion,” Collins, who is pro-abortion rights, said in a Senate hallway.

Anti-abortion groups praised Collins for her approach to the Supreme Court nominee, including Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

“Whether it be Republican or Democrat administrations, Sen. Collins has consistently asked one question in the confirmation process: ‘Is the nominee qualified?’ Interested and invested parties may try to predict a judge’s future rulings, but Sen. Collins has always made this about qualification, not partisanship – and I believe she will do the same regarding Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation,” Conley said.

But Ilsye Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a prepared statement that Collins should not be reassured by Kavanaugh about abortion issues.

“With all due respect to Senator Collins, ‘settled law’ means nothing. It is a bunch of code words, long used by many conservative judges, meant to hide their real beliefs and anti-choice record. This (Supreme) Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts, has spent much of the last term re-litigating so-called ‘settled law.’ Most troubling of all is Senator Collins’ reference to Roberts today. Roberts has voted in lockstep with anti-abortion forces on every vote since joining the court.”

Collins is a rare pro-abortion-rights Republican in a Senate with a 51-49 Republican majority. Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who also supports abortion rights, have been considered possible “no” votes on Kavanaugh, although neither has staked out a definitive position on his nomination.

Collins has never opposed a Supreme Court nominee, and both she and Murkowski voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s previous Supreme Court choice.

It may take only one Republican defection to sink the nomination, if all Democrats and left-leaning independents vote “no.” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has brain cancer and has not cast a Senate vote in months, leaving Republicans with a 50-49 majority heading into the fall midterm elections.

Anti-abortion activists have praised President Trump’s Supreme Court pick for being likely to vote in favor of their causes.

“On the vital issues of protecting religious liberty and enforcing restrictions on abortion, no court-of-appeals judge in the nation has a stronger, more consistent record than Judge Brett Kavanaugh,” wrote Sarah Pitlyk, Kavanaugh’s former law clerk and a special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a conservative anti-abortion law firm. “Judge Kavanaugh’s record on issues of concern to social conservatives is rock solid.”

WIDE-RANGING DISCUSSION

Collins said the two discussed the Garza v. Hargan decision, in which Kavanaugh dissented in a U.S. Court of Appeals case that required the federal government to permit an undocumented minor to have an abortion.

In addition, Collins said she and Kavanaugh talked about “precedent and the application of ‘stare decisis’ to abortion cases.” Stare decisis is the Latin term for standing by precedent.

Kavanaugh made his way through a gaggle of media and onlookers to Collins’ office in the Senate building for the meeting Tuesday morning. Afterward, Collins said she remains undecided on Kavanaugh’s nomination, and that she wants to continue to study his record and listen to how he answers questions at Senate confirmation hearings in September.

“You never know what questions are going to come up at a judiciary committee hearing,” Collins said. “For more than two hours we covered a wide range of issues. It was very helpful, very productive and very informative.”

Collins has voted “yes” on Supreme Court nominees from Republican and Democratic administrations, including liberals Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and conservatives John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.

Brian Duff, an associate political science professor at the University of New England, said he believes Collins is “inclined to vote yes” as she has on the other justices.

“She generally votes to confirm nominees to the court,” Duff said. “What would really happen if Kavanaugh is confirmed is that John Roberts would become the swing vote on many issues, and Roberts would be the swing votes on abortion issues.”

Duff said he doesn’t believe Roberts would support a complete overturning of Roe, but would likely agree to allowing the states to pass even more restrictions on abortion access.

“The Supreme Court can give the states an incredible amount of freedom to regulate abortion without directly overturning Roe v. Wade,” Duff said. He said Collins may be banking on the new Supreme Court, if Kavanaugh is approved, to weaken but not overturn abortion rights.

“If she votes for Kavanaugh and Roe v. Wade is overturned before she runs for re-election (in 2020), it would be a profoundly important issue in that election. That would come back to haunt her for sure. But I don’t think that’s very likely,” Duff said.

KEEPING HER OPTIONS OPEN

Carl Tobias, chair of the University of Richmond School of Law in Richmond, Virginia, told the Portland Press Herald that Collins is keeping her options open and that he doesn’t see her comments Tuesday as a signal that she will vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

“She has long maintained that she has not decided yet, and her careful approach suggests she may wait until she can review his entire record, including documents and the hearing set for Sept. 4,” Tobias said. “Kavanaugh quoting Roberts does not mean very much or suggest how Kavanaugh might vote.”

Duff said Collins is “keeping her powder dry” because there could still be damaging revelations about Kavanaugh considering that he has a “long paper trail” from his time serving in former President George W. Bush’s administration. Republicans and Democrats are locked in a fight over how many of Kavanaugh’s voluminous documents from his service in the Bush administration should be released before the vote.

Meanwhile, many activist groups are trying to pressure Collins over how she will vote on Kavanaugh.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England is scheduled to meet with Maine’s senior senator Wednesday in Washington. A national health care advocate, Ady Barkan, who has ALS, has started a campaign to fund a 2020 challenger to Collins if she votes “yes” on Kavanaugh. So far, Barkan has collected more than $109,000 in small-donor pledges, mostly $20.20 pledges that would only fund the campaign of a Collins opponent if she votes “yes.”

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2020

Collins spent more than $5.5 million on her 2014 campaign to defeat Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows, according to campaign finance reports. But progressive activists contend Collins may be more vulnerable in 2020, after her vote in favor of the controversial Republican tax reform bill and if she votes “yes” on Kavanaugh. The progressives point to a recent Suffolk University poll that pegged Collins’ current approval rating at 49 percent.

Collins also angered some conservatives when she bucked her party in July 2017 by voting to save the Affordable Care Act, which survived repeal by one vote in the Senate. Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage has criticized Collins over the ACA vote and other issues.

Collins said she also discussed protections for patients with pre-existing conditions with Kavanaugh, a topic that surfaced Tuesday during a meeting in Portland.

A Maine-based health care advocacy group called Protect Our Care hosted a meeting in which a handful of participants urged Collins not to vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation because they are wary of his stance on the ACA and fear he might help overturn the Obama-era law.

The group said a vote for Kavanaugh is a vote against protecting Mainers with pre-existing health conditions from being denied coverage by their insurers.

Portland resident Kerri Nicholas is worried that people like her son, who has Type 1 diabetes, would not be able to obtain affordable health insurance in the future if protections included in the ACA were overturned by the Supreme Court.

“I’m concerned for him … that he won’t have his medications covered,” Nicholas said, adding that without insurance, her son’s medication would cost the family well over $1,000 per month.

Nicholas said it was good that Collins met with Kavanaugh, but she urged the senator to also meet with constituents who have pre-existing conditions.

Staff Writer J. Craig Anderson contributed to this report.

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

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