Sen. Collins’ legacy hinges on how hard she fights to save the filibuster

Sen. Collins’ legacy hinges on how hard she fights to save the filibuster

This week, Senator Susan Collins finds herself at critical crossroads that stands to either salvage her increasingly tarnished legacy as a Senate “institutionalist” or reveal her as one of the most profound hypocrites in the modern history of the United States Senate.

Earlier this year, Collins was vocally accused by her critics—myself included— of using the arcane and often inscrutable mechanisms of Senate procedure to cast votes on two sides of an issue. Specifically, criticism revolved around Collins casting the deciding vote in committee to advance the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, only to then attempt to earn praise for opposing her confirmation in the final vote the floor of the Senate after enough Republican votes had already been lined up to confirm the nomination without her support.

At the time, this seemingly two-faced voting pattern was waved away by the Collins camp as a misinterpretation of Sen. Collins’ core principles; that the vote to advance DeVos out of committee—despite Collins going on to claim that DeVos was unqualified to serve— was not an act of craven deference to the Trump administration or her fellow Senate Republicans, but one of service to the existing norms of the Senate. They argued that despite her personal opposition to DeVos, norms dictated that the full Senate should have a say and that her votes ultimately followed those institutionalist principles.

In her defense of her bonafides as champion for the institution of the US Senate, Collins, seemingly unprompted, cited her opposition to Senate Democrats’ ultimately successful attempt to enact the so-called “nuclear option” in the Senate in 2013, which stripped the ability of the minority party (the GOP, at the time) to filibuster most presidential appointments, saying in reference to the rule change: “I stood up for the Senate institutions and didn’t think that was right.”

Her quote elegantly brings us to the crossroads at which Sen. Collins now stands.

In the face of increasing Democratic opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and all-around radical conservative Neil Gorsuch and the threat of Democrats securing the 40 votes needed to filibuster and sink the nomination, Republican Senate leadership is threatening to take the unprecedented step of changing the institutional rules of the Senate to eliminate the opportunity to filibuster Supreme Court nominees. The rules change would require a simple majority of only 51 votes to pass, and would essentially eliminate a powerful minority party check on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices, who serve for life and have the power to shape the course of American politics for generations.

It should be pointed out that this is an institutional rule so highly regarded that when the Senate Democrats took up the issue in the vote in 2013 that Collins cited— after a full five years of unyielding Republican opposition to virtually every action that President Obama undertook, even after his convincing reelection in 2012— they chose to keep it intact, essentially ensuring that nominees to the Supreme Court had to have the the support of both parties, even while they stripped away that necessity for lesser presidential appointments. Even while tinkering with institutional rules, Senate Democrats viewed including Supreme Court nominees in the nuclear option as a bridge too far.

On Wednesday this week, Collins came out in public support for Gorsuch, despite his brutally uninformative confirmation hearing responses, the shady multi-million dollar campaign to push the confirmation through the Senate, and his generally awful record for preserving the power of corporate interests to fire someone for literally taking action to prevent themselves from freezing to death while on the job (seriously, read his dissent on this case, it’s crazy).

This is, of course, her prerogative, although a broad coalition of 17 organizations across the state have called on her to reject the nomination. More strikingly, however, she also condemned Democrats for threatening to filibuster the nomination.

Notably absent in her remarks was a condemnation of her party’s leadership in its threats to undertake the nuclear option and strip away the filibuster power for Supreme Court nominees altogether. For a politician who less than a month ago leaned on her record as an institutionalist—again, specifically citing her vote to preserve the Republican power to filibuster nominees in 2013— to deflect accusations of hypocrisy and attempted manipulation of her constituents during the DeVos flip-flop, this is a disconcerting omission, one that by itself itself calls her fundamental integrity as an institutionalist and honest broker into question.

But if Sen. Collins is even remotely as interested in the norms of the institution of the Senate as she claims to be, she should be on the vanguard of this issue. Anything short of leading the charge would give lie to a monumental hypocrisy in her actions over these past months, as well as in her meticulously-crafted image as a centrist and institutionalist.

Unfortunately for Collins, the window to show real courage on this issue may have already passed; her silence up to this point already represents a glaring abdication of her stated core principles. An opportunity does remain, however, for Collins to at least preserve some modicum of her public image by not only coming out in opposition to the Republican use of the nuclear option, but also by using her considerable clout as a 19-year veteran of the Senate to ensure that she would carry the two additional Republican votes needed to stop the nuclear option from being invoked.

Senator Collins must now ask herself what is more precious to her: the interests of her party, or the core of her political legacy. She should trust that her constituents will be watching with great anticipation to discover her answer.

Contact Sen. Collins Here

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 48 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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