August 29, 2010

Sen. Susan Collins has become a key player in Congress

By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer

At the frenzied peak of congressional negotiations over the federal stimulus in 2009, there was a surplus of phone calls and e-mails in U.S. Sen. Susan Collins' office, but a deficit of Diet Coke.

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Susan Collins visits the Tom's of Maine manufacturing plant in Sanford and chats with Susan Dewhirst, PR Manager, after the tour.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer.

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Editor's Note: This story is the first of two examining the recent activity and achievements of Maine's U.S. senators as the Senate takes its annual summer recess. Next Sunday, Sept. 5, Sen. Olympia Snowe will be featured.

"Literally, every six to eight seconds a new (e-mail) would come through from all over the country," recalled Steve Abbott, Collins' former chief of staff. "In our front office, the phones would be ringing and when you hung up, it would ring."

The demand on phones and BlackBerries was only surpassed by that on Capitol Hill vending machines, as the flocks of lobbyists and staffers roaming the halls drained supplies of a key, all-night negotiating ingredient.

"It was like an encampment," he said. "You'd get to soda machine after soda machine in the Senate complex and they were all out of Diet Coke. It was just one of those things where everybody was there all the time and the cupboards were bare."

Negotiating the stimulus marked a period of growing influence -- and searing scrutiny -- for Collins, a centrist Republican, in the Senate, as its partisan makeup thrust Maine's junior senator into the heart the country's top policy debates.

"I enjoy playing a key role in the U.S. Senate, but it's been very difficult to be in a pivotal position on every single major issue, on every single vote," she said. "The excessive partisanship has eroded the trust among members -- and that is corrosive and destructive. There's fault on both sides."

Collins has aided Democrats by providing key votes on bills that, if not for her support, would have failed.

It started with the stimulus, when Collins and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, pared the bill's overall cost down from approximately $900 billion to $787 billion.

In tandem, the senators scrubbed certain spending initiatives -- such as millions for new sod for the National Mall -- in favor of traditional infrastructure spending such as roads and bridges.

"I knew that those provisions, that funding, would translate into real jobs for real people in Maine," said Collins. "Indeed, one of the construction company executives who met with me a few months after the stimulus bill (was signed) told me that the Recovery Act had caused him to hire 100 people who otherwise would not have been put to work."

Liberal groups in Maine and Washington, D.C., however, criticized Collins for helping to cut billions of proposed financial aid to states, education funding and efforts to make federal buildings more energy efficient from the legislation.

Bloggers labeled her "Swine Flu Sue" in April 2009, for example, for working to strip $900 million in pandemic flu preparation from the stimulus after cases of H1N1 flu started to spread across the nation.

John Nichols, writing in the liberal weekly "The Nation," also accused Collins of playing politics with public health and the economic recovery.

"That makes her about as bad a player as you will find in a town full of bad players," he wrote. "But Senate Democrats bent to her demands. That makes them, at the very least, complicit in the weakening of what needed to be a muscular plan."

Collins said the funds did not meet stimulus goals of being "temporary, timely and targeted," and were better passed through the normal budgeting process.

She ultimately voted for the measure, joined from her party by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania.

Their votes secured its passage, which angered many in the GOP.

"Republican senators are on notice," said Scott Wheeler, executive director of the National Republican Trust PAC, in a CNN interview. "If they support the stimulus package, we will make sure every voter in their state knows how they tried to further bankrupt voters in an already bad economy."

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