WASHINGTON — The Senate’s first attempt at regular bipartisan lunches this year began with a telling choice: the tastes of Maine.
The February menu featured lobster salad, wild blueberry pies, and the indulgence of Gifford’s Ice Cream. The ingredients for this buffet of good will came from the home state of Senator Susan Collins, a Republican long known for her moderate views and willingness to find compromise.
She seemed a fitting host for a new Republican-led Senate determined to rectify the dysfunction that has mired Congress. As senators struggle to pass even innocuous bills, Collins is emerging as a lifeline for moderate Democrats and a counterbalance to the GOP’s right flank — a catalyst for compromise in a sea of intractable ideologies.
Collins no longer sits in the shadow of Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican and iconic Maine moderate who retired at the end of 2012. Collins has cultivated relationships with a powerful contingent of female senators, the largest number ever to serve in the chamber.
And she has an opportunity this session to test her skill as a prominent dealmaker on challenging issues that range from raising the minimum wage to financing long-term repairs for the country’s crumbling infrastructure.
“The Senate is supposed to be the greatest deliberative body in the world, and in the last two years, we don’t seem to have done much deliberating,” Collins said in her Capitol Hill office, filled with home state mementos from her nearly two decades in office.
The sedate, 62-year-old senator, heralded for her help defusing the 2013 government shutdown, quickly dove into the Senate’s thorniest issues after Republicans took control in January.
When lawmakers nearly failed to fund the Department of Homeland Security in February over a dispute about President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, Collins introduced a bill that separated immigration from the rest of the spending measure. Her legislation augmented a broader deal that prevented a partial department shutdown.
Her negotiating skills also helped break a Senate logjam this month over abortion language in a bipartisan bill to combat sex-trafficking. Collins and Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, proposed a method to pull the abortion reference out of the bill.
The move helped propel the negotiations that led to the bill’s unanimous passage last month and broke a GOP blockade of the nomination for attorney general.
In a Senate where the loudest GOP voices frequently get the most attention — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas as Exhibit A — Democrats lavish praise on Collins as someone with whom they can work.
“She’s been steadfast in
her ability to operate independently,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. “It’s even more important now.”
Lawmakers have started to show signs of compromise, namely by fixing a Medicare payment formula that had long vexed doctors and, in a separate dispute, crafting a role for Congress in negotiations with Iran. Bipartisan cooperation is crucial to moving legislation through the Senate; the Senate Republican leadership needs at least six Democratic votes to reach 60 and break filibusters, so someone has to meet in the middle.
“I see my role as someone who has credibility with senators on both sides, who deals in good faith, and . . . is willing to put the time in to figure out what matters most to each side,” Collins said.
It’s a role grounded in Maine’s unique stature and history. The rural state, with a strong independent streak, occupies a corner of the political landscape all by itself — a last bastion of a vanishing brand of moderate Republican politics.
A black-and-white photo of Caribou, Maine, Collins’s hometown, hangs on one office wall – a gift from Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. Dozens of commemorative coins sit in rows near the window, memories of the military leaders she has met since first working for former senator William Cohen, a Maine Republican who went on to become secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton. An aging photo behind her desk shows Senate women posing in seersucker suits.
Numerous senators credit Collins for easing the Senate past a 2013 government shutdown over the federal budget that stretched more than two weeks. Collins recalls sitting in her office — alone, because her staff had been furloughed.
She got up and walked to the Senate floor, where she implored lawmakers to work with her on a compromise. The Common Sense Coalition was born, sparking a discussion that helped end the stalemate.
“The work of that group and the hours of press conferences, let me just say, helped leaders find a solution,” said Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who beat Collins in a 1994 governor’s race. “Susan was at the heart of that.”
Those kinds of big breakthroughs are rare. Collins’s compromises are often a steppingstone to consensus rather than the deal itself. And while she points to the Senate’s 20 women as fellow collaborators, the one major issue they have united on – human trafficking legislation – stalled for weeks on the Senate floor.
Collins is the senior Republican in an informal club of Senate women, which meets for regular dinners. These evenings go back years (they threw Collins an engagement party three years ago; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, gave her lingerie). But the increasing number of female senators has made them much more influential.
“Just the ability to have a certain air of civility and to be able to have conversations and establish relationships, that is the basis to solving real problems,” said Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who helped create the supper group.
The first lawmakers to offer assistance after Collins’s plea to end the shutdown were female senators. Women negotiated some of the most significant deals last session, including the passage of a farm bill and water resources legislation.
“They haven’t been a power bloc in the sense that the Congressional Black Caucus has, but it does help them build some trust across partisan lines that other senators may not have,” said James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Another framed photo in Collins’s office shows her splattered in champagne. It captures the time she christened a boat for Bath Iron Works, a shipbuilder and the state’s largest private employer.
Collins, fearful of a bad luck omen if the glass failed to break, practiced in the shipyard the night before. The next day, she hit the ship so hard, the champagne covered her and nearby dignitaries.
Collins’s embrace of sticky situations could prove useful in a Congress that must deal with a looming debt ceiling, a contentious budget process, the potential ramifications of a Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, a sweeping international trade deal, a battle over wage floors, and funding for the Highway Trust Fund.
Placement on key committees also enhances her negotiating power. Collins heads the Special Committee on Aging, leads a transportation subcommittee on the highly influential Appropriations Committee, and sits on the health and select intelligence committees.
The picture closest to Collins’s desk is a portrait of former senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Letters Smith sent to Collins, then a high school senior, hang on either side.
Smith, who died in 1995, was part of a breed of New England moderate Republican that has been nearly eradicated from the modern GOP. She was known for denouncing, in a speech in 1950, the smear tactics of the anti-Communist Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
Collins made her first trip to Washington in 1971 as part of a Senate youth program. Smith sat the student down and spoke with her for two hours.
“She had such integrity; she always did what was right,” Collins said, staring at the photo of the respected senator who shaped her career.
“Now I sit at her desk on the Senate floor,” she said, “which I think is so cool.”