The Christian Science Monitor

Can the center hold? Susan Collins and the high wire act of being a moderate

Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon (l.), Susan Collins (c.), and Connie Mack of Florida talk about the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999. Senator Collins voted to acquit Mr. Clinton. Source: Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File

On an overcast morning this spring, Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins is visiting with students in grades 2 through 4 at the Leroy H. Smith School here in Winterport, just outside Bangor. The children have filed into the school gym and sit cross-legged on the wooden floor as she narrates a “day in the life” slide show of her job as a United States senator.

She is in teacher mode, engaging her young audience. Here she is at a bill-signing ceremony with President Barack Obama (and who is that on the other side of the president? That’s right. Michelle Obama!). Here she is in a puffy parka visiting Antarctica – and penguins, too (they’re really cute but they stink!). In another shot, she’s christening a Navy ship built at Maine’s Bath Iron Works. She smashes a bottle with such enthusiasm that the contents spray her and other dignitaries. The kids laugh. 

After the lights come up, it’s time for questions, which the children read from cards. What’s your least favorite thing about your job? Traveling back and forth to Washington, she says. Why do you want to be a senator? She gives a few examples of helping people – writing a law so teachers who pay for school supplies can get a tax break, and directing federal funds to build roads and bridges. Then she says:

“I like that feeling of being able to make a difference.”

It’s an answer any lawmaker might give to a class of attentive, idealistic grade schoolers. But in Senator Collins’s case it may be more true than they know, more true than she intended. As one of the few remaining centrists in the nation’s capital, Collins has become a pursued – and highly pressured – political figure: Someone in a narrowly divided US Senate who holds considerable power to make a difference one way or the other on legislation, appointments, and policies.

It happened in 2017 with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), when she bucked her Republican colleagues in their attempt to repeal President Obama’s signature health-care measure, drawing plaudits from the left and sharp criticism from the right. It happened later that year when she sided with her GOP colleagues to help pass the Republican tax cut, which caused progressive activists to occupy her offices in Portland and Bangor. Now it’s happening again with the fight over the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court.

Liberal interest groups are urgently pressing the senator, who supports abortion rights, to reject the conservative judge, who many believe will tilt the court decisively to the right on a number of issues including, most notably, Roe v. Wade. At the same time, Republicans are hoping she’ll find nothing in the coming weeks to dissuade her from her view – so far – that the jurist is “clearly qualified.”

It is a role Collins is intimately familiar with: being in the middle. The senior senator from Maine is a moderate in a nation that increasingly eschews moderation.

The evolution of her career, in fact, offers a window into how the politics of Capitol Hill

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