Collins becomes centrist power player

Collins becomes centrist power player
© Greg Nash

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsIs a trap being set for Trump in the Senate trial? The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial MORE (R-Maine) is suddenly finding herself in the driver’s seat when it comes to getting legislation through the Senate.

The Maine Republican, a centrist in a party drifting to the right, is flexing her strength as a dealmaker and signaling she intends to be a power player while Republicans enjoy just a 51-49 edge in the upper chamber.

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Collins was instrumental in ending a three-day government shutdown earlier this month, convening a bipartisan group of senators in her office for days that slowly tiptoed toward a deal.

On Monday evening, she was back at work, hosting a group of senators who hope to reach a bipartisan immigration deal that would protect from deportation an estimated 800,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, known as “Dreamers,” and beef up security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Colleagues say the 65-year-old Collins, a frequent presence on cable television with close relationships to members of both parties, could also be at the center of talks on infrastructure and health care later this year.

“Susan has the trust and respect of Democrats and Republicans and she thinks independently,” said Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Turf war derails push on surprise medical bills | Bill would tax e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaign | .5M ad blitz backs vulnerable Dems on drug prices Turf war derails bipartisan push on surprise medical bills MORE (R-Tenn.), a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment CNN's Cuomo promotes 'Dirty Donald' hashtag, hits GOP for 'loyalty oath' to Trump MORE (R-Ky.) who has long wanted to get more bipartisan policy done on Capitol Hill.

“This ought to be a very satisfying time for her because she’s right in the center of the action when all we’re going to be doing is bipartisan legislation,” he added.

Collins has long been seen as a swing vote on legislation, and defied her party by voting against legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

But she backed President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s tax-cut bill, underscoring her pro-business, traditional GOP bona fides.

The senators meeting in her office like to see themselves as the center of the Senate, and Collins has clearly become a public leader for the group.

If Collins is the most centrist Republican in the Senate, Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump Manchin warns he'll slow-walk government funding bill until he gets deal on miners legislation MORE (W.Va.) is the most centrist Democrat. He says he recognized a kindred spirit immediately after his arrival in Washington.

“I got here on Nov. 15, 2010, and she’s the person I’ve always looked at as a person who wants to get things done for the country and isn’t so worried about politics,” Manchin said. “I detected that from the first day I was here.”

“We’re friends and we trust each other. She’s definitely in the right place at the right time,” he added.

Collins and Manchin formed a group of centrists now known as the Common Sense Coalition during the 2013 government shutdown, when conservatives led by Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Senate Republicans air complaints to Trump administration on trade deal MORE (R) opposed government funding legislation that didn’t stop the implementation of ObamaCare.

They revived the group before this year’s shutdown, when Democrats blocked a stopgap spending measure that didn’t protect Dreamers from deportation.

Collins has figured prominently in putting together major bipartisan deals throughout her career.

She was a member of the “Gang of 14” that negotiated a compromise to preserve the judicial filibuster that lasted for nearly 10 years, until then-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidNevada journalist: Harry Reid will play 'significant role' in Democratic primary The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment The Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached MORE (D-Nev.) stripped Republicans of the power to block appellate and district court judges in November 2013.

She was also one of only three Senate Republicans who voted for President Obama’s fiscal stimulus package that helped revive the economy in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession.

For years, centrists such as Collins have complained that partisan battles between party leaders have crowded out debates on the Senate floor.

Manchin thinks a major problem is that McConnell and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTurf war derails bipartisan push on surprise medical bills Senate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave MORE (D-N.Y.) grip the reins of power too tightly, preventing rank-and-file colleagues from striking deals that may anger donors and activists.

“When you have so much power that congregates in just two offices, the majority leader and the minority leader, it’s not good for America, it’s not good for the Senate,” Manchin told The Hill Monday.

Republican colleagues say Collins has a unique role to play this year because senators on both sides of the aisle trust her at a time when there’s growing distrust between the parties.

Democrats ultimately accepted a deal to reopen the government after McConnell promised to bring a neutral immigration bill to the Senate floor under an open amendment process after Feb. 8, but many openly questioned whether they could trust him to follow through.

Collins has more credibility among Democrats  — something crucial in a hyperpartisan atmosphere.

“Susan Collins is important because, you could argue, she has more credibility than Mitch McConnell or even [Senate Republican Whip] John CornynJohn CornynTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn On The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA MORE on bringing a proposal to Democrats. She works with them all the time,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.), who negotiated a bipartisan immigration deal with Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip MORE (R-S.C.) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Lawmakers introduce bill taxing e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaigns Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report MORE (Ill.), which Trump rejected earlier this month, said he was encouraged by the recent bipartisan meetings hosted by Collins.

He said Collins created “a safe space” in her office for colleagues to explore what has been historically a highly charged issue among the liberal and conservative party bases.

Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Lankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman The Hill's 12:30 Report: Job growth soars in November MORE (R-Ga.), one of the Republicans who has attended meetings in Collins’s office, said “she’ll have a significant role.”

“She’s always had a prominent role and bipartisan approach to things,” he said. “She’s a good lady.”