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Why Susan Collins is in a very unfamiliar place on the Kavanaugh vote

Susan Collins has built her entire political career on being in the middle.If there's a "Gang" formed...

Posted: Oct 4, 2018 4:52 AM
Updated: Oct 4, 2018 4:52 AM

Susan Collins has built her entire political career on being in the middle.

If there's a "Gang" formed in the Senate, Collins is on it. If there's a bipartisan huddle to be had, Collins is in it. If there is a "small group of undecided senators who could make all the difference," Collins is part of it.

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That status as the center of the center of the Senate has been remarkably beneficial to Collins' political life. Elected first in 1996, she spent years in the shadow of her fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe. But since Snowe's retirement from the Senate in 2012, Collins has emerged as a major political force in both Washington and Maine.

As such, she was heavily courted by Maine Republicans to run for the open governor's mansion in 2018. She decided against that race last October and, in her announcement explaining why, she cited an unnamed Senate colleague who told her "the institution would suffer in your absence." Added Collins: "As I thought about the senator's words, I realized how much needs to be done in a divided, troubled Washington, if we are to serve the people that we represent effectively. I have demonstrated the ability to work across the aisle to build coalitions and to listen to the concerns of the people of my state, my country and my colleagues."

Reading between the lines, what Collins was saying was this: I'm in a position -- the middle -- of real power in a closely divided Senate. Being one of the few senators who don't automatically line up with their respective political tribe gives me influence and sway well beyond just a single senator from a Northeastern states.

Which, again, has generally been true. Collins has been a critical linchpin in deals on everything from then President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package to helping make a deal on long-term unemployment benefits. Her role in these situations -- and lots of others like them -- has generally followed a very clear blueprint: She makes clear she is unhappy with the current state of the proposal, suggests she would be open to compromise and works to gather a group of like-minded folks to improve her power via numbers.

All of that brings us to the current moment in which Collins as well as Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (Arizona) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) are seen as the three people who can and will make or break Kavanaugh's chance at the nation's highest court. And the very clear reality that Collins isn't having all that much fun at the moment.

Her office is flooded with activists, most of them insisting that she vote against Kavanaugh. A crowd-funded effort organized by liberals raised more than $1 million that could be transferred to her 2020 Democratic opponent's campaign account if she votes for Kavanaugh. (In a sign of how bothered Collins was by the effort, her spokeswoman described the move as "bribery" and "extortion" in a statement.) Reporters have clashed with Capitol Police over whether they are allowed to stake out Collins' personal and committee offices.

All of that mishigas points to a simple reality for Collins: This Kavanaugh vote -- and she finds herself on it -- is very, very different than your run-of-the-mill centrists-strike-compromise thing. The truth is that most of the times the Senate forms a working group or a "Gang" of some sort, a deal gets worked out an accepted by the party leadership long before there is a floor vote. Politicians don't like to see blood on the floor -- especially when it's their own. So they tend to handle these things behind the scenes. The likes of Collins and Murkowski can take credit for making the deal happen without having to cast a deciding vote on much of anything.

In fact, the fight over President Donald Trump's effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is the exception to how this compromise process works. Collins and a few other senators including Arizona's John McCain made clear they were uncomfortable with the deal proposed by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But no deal was worked out in advance. McConnell just put the measure on the floor and rolled the dice. McCain's "no" vote, which Trump still brings up regularly on the campaign trail (including Tuesday night in Mississippi) was the rare instance in which a swing-vote senator is put on the spot, with bad political consequences everywhere you look. (McCain was already in the throes of his battle with brain cancer, of course, and, therefore was less concerned about the political reverberations of his move. He died from the disease in August.)

Unfortunately for Collins, the way the repeal and replace fight played out has eerie similarities to how the Kavanaugh vote debate is coming down. Partisans on both sides are absolutely rabid. Republicans argue that putting Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Democrats are playing politics with -- and in the process destroying a good man. Democrats view Kavanaugh as, at best, someone who didn't tell the truth about his life while under oath and, at worst, someone who did what Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez accuse him of. There's almost no ground for a moderate to stand on.

And while Collins, Flake and Murkowski have bought themselves some time by forcing the White House (and McConnell) to delay a final vote on Kavanaugh until the FBI can complete a supplementary background investigation into the nominee, it is VERY likely that the eventual report will be something well short of conclusive about the allegations.

Which will put Collins in a very tight spot. There will be no brokered compromise here. McConnell and the White House are dead-set on holding the confirmation vote before the week is over. Democrats are dead-set on keeping Kavanaugh off the bench. This is coming to a head -- quickly -- and with zero good political options.

This is not the crucial center that Collins envisioned holding when she decided to pass on a run for governor. This is a vise, that is squeezing ever tighter by the moment, and Collins is caught in it with no easy way out.

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