The Judiciary

With ‘nuclear option’ vote, Collins puts her ‘moderate’ label on the line


Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) is facing a hard choice this critical week for the nomination of Judge Gorsuch.  Is she a moderate, devoted to Senate traditions and rule, or a party loyalist who bends to the will of the majority leaders.

For 20 years, Collins has been considered a moderate Republican, willing to veer away from the party’s leadership when she disagrees in principle. And her commitment to Senate rules and procedures is well documented. Senator Collins stated in 2016 she believes that “the best outcome from the Senate, whether we’re dealing with nominees or treaties or legislation, come about when we follow the regular order.”

{mosads}Her actions on Trump’s cabinet nominees already raised questions about her apparent moderation and devotion to process.  Her moderation on education policy led her to oppose Betsy DeVos, but in committee she voted for DeVos, arguing that the president deserved to have his Cabinet nominees considered by the full Senate.  An analysis by Colin Woodard in the Portland Press Herald noted that Collins has, indeed, always voted Cabinet nominees out of committee for a full Senate vote regardless of who was president and regardless how she intended to vote on the floor.


But her break with the leadership on the floor was also low risk, as McConnell had the 50 votes he needed before she announced her opposition.  So, her opposition on the floor allowed her to appear independent, while not risking the confirmation or making life difficult for the Republican leadership.

She has already opted to depart from her reputation as a moderate by endorsing a man who is on the right fringe of American jurisprudence.  Gorsuch is described as an “originalist,” in the Scalia tradition.  In reality, he (as with Scalia) is an activist judge, one who would actively assert that only a close textual reading of a 225 year old document can be used to justify decisions that would reverse decades of progress on equality, union organizing, and environmental issues, among others, none of which existed as judicial issues that long ago. Collins has already conceded her moderation with her endorsement.

But it is now her devotion to the Senate rules that is about to be sorely tested.  One Senate rule she has consistently defended regardless of the party in power is the filibuster. The filibuster prevents closing debate in the Senate unless 60 members vote to close it.  Commonly called a “filibuster.”

The filibuster has been a part of Senate procedure since the mid-1800s. Republican lawmakers considered eliminating the filibuster, allowing all actions to proceed with only a majority vote, in 2005 when Democrats filibustered a number of former President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. At that time, Senator Collins was part of a bipartisan gang of 14 senators who brokered a deal that averted going “nuclear” (wiping out the filibuster).

In 2013, then-Democratic majority leader Harry Reid broke precedent and went “nuclear,” eliminating the filibuster for most presidential nominees including cabinet secretaries and lower level judicial appointments, after Senate Republicans had filibustered a group of President Barack Obama’s court nominees.

Senator Collins stood on principle that time, saying:

“I have consistently worked to protect the rights of the minority whether I was serving in the minority or the majority. In 2005, I strongly opposed a Republican plan to employ the so-called ‘nuclear option.’ I was deeply concerned that, by adopting changes in the standing rules by a simple majority, party-line vote, the majority party would have had unprecedented power to limit debate [which] impedes careful consideration of the most important matters before Congress and is not in our country’s best interests.”

The showdown is this week.  Sen. Chuck Schumer is threatening to filibuster the vote to close debate and proceed with the Gorsuch nomination.  Collins will have to make a pivotal choice: consistency with her stated principles and devotion to the rules, or caving to Sen. McConnell, should he decide to go nuclear.

She has already endorsed Gorsuch, but the rules are still the rules.  Collins has stated in the past that the nuclear option is undemocratic. Now she says Democrats should not filibuster the nomination. Something has to give and the choice Collins will be forced into — whether to support the rule change allowing the nomination to go forward or standing firm against a rule change that may haunt the Senate for years — may end her reputation as a moderate Republican.

If she agrees with McConnell to invoke the nuclear option she will be turning her back on her own stated principles regarding process and rules and on her commitment to the Senate as a deliberative institution. Her vote in this case may turn out to be critical, one that will weigh heavily on her reputation as a moderate who sticks to the rules.

April Humphrey is a leader of the statewide “Indivisible” affiliated group  Mainers for Accountable Leadership (MFAL). She was a political organizer for 15 years in New York state before returning to Maine and becoming an early childhood educator.

Gordon Adams is a former Clinton White House senior official for national security budgets, resident of Brunswick, Maine, and a co-leader of MFAL. He is Professor Emeritus at American University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Barack Obama judicial appointment controversies Chuck Schumer Filibuster Filibuster in the United States Senate Gang of 14 George W. Bush Supreme Court candidates Harry Reid Nuclear option Parliamentary procedure Susan Collins Susan Collins United States Senate

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