Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a prominent moderate voice and one of the Senate’s most conscientious members, is poised to make or break Brett Kavanaugh’s chance at becoming a Supreme Court justice.
A big reason for that is several Senate colleagues are waiting to see what Collins will do before announcing their positions.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has asked centrist members of his caucus to keep their powder dry on Kavanaugh until they know where all Republicans stand.
And GOP senators will need to take a position if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) follows through with Monday’s promise to eventually hold an up-or-down vote on the floor.
Over her 22-year Senate career, Collins has built a reputation as a fair-minded, practical swing vote who is willing to stand up to Republican leadership and presidents from her own party.
She voted against former President Clinton’s impeachment in 1999, helped craft a compromise to get past a major partisan impasse over circuit court nominees in 2005, was a key player in sinking a proposal to repeal ObamaCare last year and has consistently criticized President Trump for controversial statements since he took office.
She also voted against Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt, Trump’s controversial picks to head the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively.
One of her first legislative accomplishments in the Senate decades ago was to co-sponsor an amendment with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to repeal a $50 billion tax break for the tobacco industry.
Kavanaugh will have virtually no chance at confirmation if Collins says she believes Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her at a high school party in 1982, according to people on both sides of the partisan Supreme Court fight.
On the flip side, it will be very difficult for Democrats to muster the votes to stop him if Collins rejects Ford’s accusations as insufficiently substantiated and announces support for Kavanaugh.
Senate Republican aides think that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will likely vote the same way as Collins, who thus far has played a more vocal role in the debate over Kavanaugh.
“We’re talking about a jury of one: Susan Collins,” said a senior GOP aide.
“When you look at Murkowski and even Flake, no one lets Collins get to the left of them, so she’s going to be the lodestar here,” the source added, referring Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), who is seen as another GOP swing vote.
The aide gave Collins a “51 percent chance” of voting for Kavanaugh.
Democrats agree that Kavanaugh will be defeated if they can flip Collins, who has voted for many of Trump’s nominees and helped pass his signature $1.5 trillion tax-reform bill last year.
“If Collins were to oppose him then that would be the kiss of death,” said Brian Fallon, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide and executive director of Demand Justice, which has helped lead liberal opposition to Kavanaugh.
Progressives on Monday amped up the pressure on Collins with protests urging her to vote against Kavanaugh. Capitol Police said they arrested 46 people outside Collins’s office and charged them with unlawful demonstrations.
Collins’s allies, however, say it’s unfair to shove all the responsibility for the nominee’s fate on her considering there are 100 members of the Senate and many of them are still publicly undecided as to how they will vote.
“By last count, there are eight members of the United States Senate who have yet to announce a position on Judge Kavanaugh,” said Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins.
Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, meaning Kavanaugh could still be confirmed in a 50-50 tie with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote.
“I think Collins will vote with us. Kavanaugh gave her the right answer on Roe v. Wade,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on her position.
Collins told Showtime’s “The Circus” in a recent interview that she “doesn’t think Kavanaugh will overturn the landmark abortion rights case.”
Collins said Monday that she believes Senate investigators should reach out to a second woman, Deborah Ramirez, who has accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her at a college party. A Democratic aide cited her statement as evidence that she hasn’t dismissed the second woman’s allegation as other Republicans have.
Some Senate veterans see Collins as a possible heir to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was often considered the conscience of the Senate — or at least the Senate GOP conference.
“She has the opportunity to be the conscience on this issue,” said former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who worked with Collins in 2005 to fashion the so-called Gang of 14 compromise on judges, and also teamed up with her in 2009 to pass a major fiscal stimulus, one of former President Obama’s first legislative accomplishments.
“I always feel empathy with people who are put in that position,” said Nelson, adding that he voted for the 2010 Affordable Care Act because he knew it was the right thing to do even though he knew it would cause a major political backlash.
“I just hope she does what she thinks is right,” he said. “You can’t couch votes on what’s best for you. You have to couch votes on an entirely different standard and that’s where conscience plays a major role. Clearly it did for Sen. McCain.”
Republicans say that McConnell will give Collins wide latitude, but in the end, he is counting on her vote in support of Kavanaugh.
“Susan is a uniquely independent person,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). “She embodies what we call the Northern New England ethic, which is absolute integrity, very serious approach to issues and willingness to march to her own drum and find her own path.”
“On the conscience issue, she’s always sort of seen Margaret Chase Smith as a role model, for lack of a better word,” Gregg added, referring to the former senator from Maine who was one of the first Senate Republicans to publicly challenge Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), the infamous redbaiter, in her 1950 “Declaration of Conscience” speech.
Collins commemorated Smith in a 2014 floor speech as “a wonderful inspiration to me.”
Gregg said the “effort by the left and the Hollywood crowd to intimidate her is the wrong approach because she doesn’t intimidate.”
Protesters occupied Collins’s Senate office last week as well, and her staff has received vulgar phone calls from people saying they’re opposed to Kavanaugh.
Three advocacy groups — Mainers for Accountable Leadership, the Maine People’s Alliance and Be a Hero — have led a crowdfunding campaign that has raised at least $1.3 million to pressure Collins to oppose Kavanaugh. She blasted the effort as an attempt to “bribe” her.
“Everyone understands that when you come from a constituency like she does, you’re not going to march in lockstep with agenda-driven Republicans from other parts of the country,” said Gregg, the former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “But she was always there when you needed her, in my opinion. I used to go to her on budget votes, which were tough ones, and she would be there when I needed her.”
If Collins were to vote to confirm Kavanaugh, her reputation as an independent voice would likely suffer a blow as that decision would be met with a barrage of criticism from Democrats and advocates of the “Me Too” movement.
NARAL Pro-Choice America wrote in a recent memo that Collins had an obligation to vote against Kavanaugh because of his uncertain views of abortion rights and the assault allegation leveled against him by Ford.
The group noted that Collins has been willing to go further than many of her colleagues in criticizing Trump’s past behavior and that she championed legislation to decrease instances of sexual assault on college campuses.
Some critics have questioned whether Collins is willing to buck McConnell on such a high-stakes vote.
“The only time that she votes and takes a position opposite to the party is if there’s someone else and there’s safety in numbers,” said Janet Martin, a professor of political science at Bowdoin College, who studies Congress and women in politics.
She argued that the 2017 ObamaCare repeal bill that Collins helped defeat would have passed had McCain not surprised colleagues at the last minute by voting against it.
Martin also noted that Collins held back last week from calling for an FBI investigation to examine Ford’s sexual assault claim.
“Based on what she was saying last week, there was nobody I know in Maine that thought she was going to do anything to stop or delay progress on the confirmation of Kavanaugh,” Martin said. “Not every woman has come out and been in support of the ‘Me Too’ movement or thinks there really is an issue here.”
Clark, Collins’s spokeswoman, rejected the claim that the senator isn’t willing to go against McConnell if she feels the evidence warrants rejecting Kavanaugh.
“It’s absurd to suggest that Sen. Collins hesitates to vote against leadership when the stakes are high,” she said.