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The Power Center: How A Moderate Wields Big Influence In A Polarized Senate

Maine Sen. Susan Collins speaks to the media after voting against Betsy DeVos as education secretary on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Maine Sen. Susan Collins speaks to the media after voting against Betsy DeVos as education secretary on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7.

Susan Collins has broken both of her ankles. She broke her left one when she was running in high heels to the Senate chamber because she so desperately refused to miss a vote. The Maine Republican has the second-longest voting streak in the Senate, by the way, after fellow Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

"He has a longer streak, but I'm the only one who's never missed a single vote," said Collins in a recent interview in her office, referring to Grassley missing votes early in his Senate career.

Not that she's keeping track.

Collins, at 64, broke her right ankle just several weeks ago — when she slipped on black ice on her doorstep in Maine. And now, you'll find her gliding through the halls of Congress in a motorized scooter.

At the scooter's maximum speed, a reporter would need to run to keep up with the senator. (This was confirmed when we took her scooter for a test-sprint outside her office this week.) And these wheels came just in time – because Collins is getting chased down by hordes of reporters lately.

The success of President Trump's agenda will depend in large part on how unified Republicans are in a very narrowly divided Senate. And that's why all eyes are once again on Collins of Maine. On health care, on Cabinet nominees, on potentially changing Senate rules to push through a Supreme Court confirmation – as a Republican who hovers near the political center, Collins has once more found herself center stage.

Gentle-mannered and almost always smiling — even when she's causing her party headaches – Collins is the Republican vote both sides watch. So in a chamber divided 52 to 48, with the most polarizing White House in modern history, her Republican colleagues say it matters more than ever now if Collins is a "no" vote.

"I think Senator Collins hits above her weight in terms of her influence on the body because she is willing to reach across the aisle," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "She's not as ideological as a lot of members of the conference. And when you have 52 votes in the United States Senate, it doesn't take much to change the balance of power."

That was evident when Collins was one of two Republicans who opposed Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, which led to the first tie-breaker vote in history by a vice president on a Senate confirmation. Collins is also leaning against drastically changing Senate rules – invoking the so-called "nuclear option" – to let Republicans confirm their Supreme Court nominee with 51 votes instead of the usual 60. On health care, she's wanted to slow down repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and she's co-sponsoring the only Republican billthat gives states the option of keeping Obamacare.

"Susan is used to being in this territory. This isn't the first time she has been willing to put aside party labels to do what she thinks is best for her state and for the country," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "I think she's one of the few senators around here who understands the way you get to progress is through compromise."

Democrats say Collins will be a key player if there's any hope of the Senate being a check against President Trump.

"We have hope that we can continue to appeal to her. We don't always win our case with her. She's independent-minded," said Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois. "But she has the courage to step up and do things that are unpopular. Many on the other side do not."

Feeling the Pressure

Last November, Collins wrote in a vote for House Speaker Paul Ryan for president. She now says she does want to see Trump succeed, but she's spoken out against him many times already since the election. She's criticized Trump's executive order on refugee resettlement and his decision to give Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, a permanent seat on the National Security Council principals committee.

"Our country is more divided than any time I have ever seen in the years that I've been in public life. And I'm very concerned about that," said Collins. "I feel a special obligation, given the divisions in our country, to try to find a path forward on the many contentious issues that we're facing."

Collins says being the deciding vote is nothing new — she's been a moderate throughout her 20 years in the Senate. But the spotlight is a lot more intense these days.

"I dofeel more pressure," said Collins. "This is not a completely unfamiliar role because I have been a deciding vote many times in the past – and it's never a comfortable position – but I can't tell you the number of people in Maine and elsewhere who have come up to me and have said to me, 'Are you going to be there for us? Are you going to protect us?'"

She's literally caught in the middle. In northern Maine, Trump won by 11 points. In southern Maine, Hillary Clinton won by 14 points. She acutely hears both sides of the fight right within her home state.

Collins grew up in the small northern town of Caribou, where both her parents served as mayor and where her family has operated a lumber business since the 19th century. Her father went on to serve in both houses of the state legislature.

"I understand, coming from northern Maine, that Donald Trump's message really resonated with people who had lost their jobs due to poorly negotiated trade deals and are feeling disenfranchised, and are feeling that they've been left behind," said Collins. "And in the more prosperous southern part of the state, which is more diverse ethnically, I understand the concerns that people have about refugees, for example, and minority populations that have come into our state."

Maine has produced a long line of moderate politicians. But the other senator from Maine, independent Angus King, says being moderate now, in such a politically charged climate, can be much harder.

"Because people from both sides are so passionate. You know, 'if you're not 100 percent for me, you're against me.' People are being pulled to the edges. You rarely see huge rallies of moderates," said King, laughing. "And moderate, by the way, doesn't mean you don't have views. It just means your views aren't predictable ideologically one way or the other, and you're trying to follow the facts where they lead and reach your own conclusions."

And there's power in that. The saying "all things in moderation" takes on a special meaning in the Senate – where it takes only a handful of moderates to change any outcome.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.