[as published in The Hill, February 4, 2021)
Immediately after voting to acquit Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial early in 2020, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — facing a highly competitive re-election campaign — rationalized her decision. The disgraced Trump had learned “a pretty big lesson” that would guide his future behavior, Collins insisted, justifying her vote against conviction.
Say what you like about Collins, she was dead right on that one: Trump learned he could escape culpability because his Republican myrmidons would cover up whatever mess he left lying around. The acquittal stoked Trump’s supercharged sense of invulnerability, producing the unapologetic seditionist who loosed a mob on the U.S. Capitol.
Now the question is how President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats deal with Susan Collins’s propensity for duplicitous behavior.
Collins revels in portraying herself as the senator elected from Maine but representing the dwindling rational center of American politics. She prides herself on engaging in negotiations with Democrats, when they are in charge, and pleads for compassion and support when pursuing self-serving goals as well as collaboration.
I remember her bemoaning in 2009 that she had been called “Benedict Arnold” by fellow Republicans for negotiating with President Obama and Democrats over the stimulus bill. And it is true: Collins, her Maine Republican colleague Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) did join with Democrats to pass that bill, but only after Snowe and the others had hugely inflated its pricetag to $838 billion by adding non-stimulative spending like the Alternative Minimum Tax and funding for the National Institutes of Medicine (a favorite of cancer-survivor Specter).
Then these same Republicans were shocked to discover, in Captain Renault fashion, that the cost of the bill was so high and demanded that House Democrats (who had passed their version with no Republican support) slash $77 billion that genuinely aided individuals, states and local governments ravaged by the Bush recession. Collins even wanted an additional $20 billion in cuts from the 2009 stimulus, and the three Republicans walked out of the negotiations for a while when the Obama White House refused.
A special target for Collins was the House’s support for school construction funding that would help communities with a dearth of school buildings and provide jobs for hard-hit construction workers. Collins resolutely opposed funding new construction, and demanded local communities be limited to spending the money on the renovation of existing buildings. House Democrats were infuriated, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had little choice. “I’m playing cards,” Reid glumly explained “They give me three aces, Susan pulls out a full house.” Collins played the hand for all it was worth. “No matter what I did,” Reid said, Collins “had the better deal.”
Biden, who was a part of those negotiations, was surely remembering those manipulative machinations as they sat in the Oval Office on Monday discussing the COVID relief bill.
This time, with Democrats having only 50 votes in the Senate, there is no chance of Collins providing the crucial vote to reach the filibuster-proof margin of 60, unless all the Republicans who met with Biden decide to buck Mitch McConnell. That isn’t likely, even if Biden capitulated and agreed to Collins’s cuts from the House-passed bill.
But doing so would cost Biden mightily. Selling out House Democrats after they cast a tough vote would reignite trepidation within Speaker Pelosi’s caucus. Under Obama, the House repeatedly supported expansive legislation only to have the Senate demand the House accept a shaved down bill. Moreover, Collins and her allies are demanding Democrats drop provisions that are crucial to the party’s progressive base, including an increase in the minimum wage that would benefit low-income front-line workers who have suffered so much during the COVID pandemic and boost federal tax revenues to boot.
Any promise by Collins to support provisions dropped from the COVID bill sometime in the future deserves the deepest of skepticism. When Democrats agreed to strip down the 2009 bill to meet Collins’s demands, the legislation provided far less than most economists estimated was needed to stimulate the economy and shorten the recession. Yet when efforts were made to supplement the initial money later that year, Collins and company were nowhere to be found. No further relief was approved, and the recession dragged on longer than it otherwise might have.
Collins reflexively plays the martyr role, but it is just a role.
I know Speaker Pelosi wasn’t impressed with the senator’s professed self-sacrifice in 2009. “You’re getting good press,” she told Collins. There is a good reason Democrats have cynically observed Collins “is always there when you don’t need her.”
Once again, Collins is sitting in the Oval Office demanding that a new Democratic president dilute a stimulus urgently needed to address the failure of his Republican predecessor, whose policies Collins supported.
We know Trump failed to learn the “big lesson” in 2020; now the question is, did Biden in 2009?