Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today MORE (R-Maine) is emerging as the most important vote in the Senate battle over President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE’s impeachment trial, as Democrats regard her support as key to getting the additional witnesses and documents they need to build their case. 

Collins, who has played a pivotal role in the biggest Senate debates of the Trump era, finds herself once again in the spotlight as one of the Republicans considered most likely to side with Democrats.

“She’s an important player,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-Ill.), who noted that while every Senate vote is important, key trial questions will be decided by a handful of lawmakers.

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“Four Republicans can bring this back to a bipartisan position,” he said.

Collins cast pivotal votes to defeat legislation to repeal ObamaCare in 2017 and to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMurkowski leans into record ahead of potentially bruising reelection bid Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law MORE in 2018.

Partisan lines have become so entrenched in the Senate that only a handful of senators are considered potential defectors on contentious votes.

Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenate passes bill to award congressional gold medal to first Black NHL player The glass ceiling that diverse Senate staff still face Here's evidence the Senate confirmation process is broken MORE (Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said there’s “no question” that Collins will be a pivotal vote. She cited Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMichelle Obama to Simone Biles: 'We are proud of you and we are rooting for you' Aly Raisman defends former teammate Biles: 'I'm proud of her' Mitt Romney praises Simone Biles following withdrawal from team event MORE (R-Utah) as another potential swing vote.

But Stabenow said fellow senators don’t know what to expect from Collins, who has kept her cards close to the vest.

“That is one of the big questions at this point,” she said. “We’re getting no indication at all.” 

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A Democratic senator who requested anonymity said the Democratic caucus is most focused on Collins and Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Manchin grills Haaland over Biden oil and gas moratorium The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today MORE (R-Alaska).

“Susan Collins and Lisa are key. Everyone is watching them because Susan is up for reelection and we all know what the party did to Lisa, so she has an interest in being independent,” the senator said.

In 2010, Murkowski lost the Alaska GOP Senate primary but won the general election as a write-in candidate.

When asked by The Hill whether she’s experiencing a sense of déjà vu about being the center of attention, Collins replied, “That’s not what I’m seeking to be. I’m just trying to do my job.”

A Senate source familiar with Collins’s thinking said the senator will likely play a significantly different role than she did during the Kavanaugh debate when she joined with other moderates such as Murkowski, then-Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.), then-Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampJoe Manchin's secret Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Effective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests MORE (D-N.D.) and Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOvernight Energy: Manchin grills Haaland over Biden oil and gas review | Biden admin reportedly aims for 40 percent of drivers using EVs by 2030 |  Lack of DOD action may have caused 'preventable' PFAS risks Manchin grills Haaland over Biden oil and gas moratorium Feehery: It's time for Senate Republicans to play hardball on infrastructure MORE (D-W.Va.) to call for an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations confronting Kavanaugh before his nomination went forward.

Collins is not expected to once again form a rump group with fellow Senate moderates to demand more information relevant to the articles of impeachment against Trump, the source said.

Moderate Democrats such as Sens. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBottom line Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Key Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package MORE (Del.) and Manchin confirmed that there has been little in the way of formal discussions among the centrists about what the rules for the Senate trial should be.

Another difference this time: Collins will play the role of Senate arbiter while also facing a potentially competitive primary and general election in the same year. 

“She would definitely have a primary challenger if she did break ranks with the Republicans,” said Janet Martin, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Maine.

Martin said Maine has a strong Tea Party faction, particularly in the state’s rural 2nd Congressional District, that could mobilize against Collins if she votes with Democrats on crucial procedural votes.

Collins witnessed the strength of Maine’s Tea Party activists in 2010 when they took control of the state Republican Party convention to adopt an aggressive platform that called for radical changes such as sealing the nation’s borders and eliminating the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve.

Trump visited Maine four times during the 2016 campaign in hopes of winning one of Maine’s electoral votes. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement MORE ended up narrowly carrying the state by 2.5 percentage points but won only three of its four electors.

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Maine’s Senate Republican primary won’t be held until June 9, giving a potential opponent plenty of time to wage a campaign based on Collins's impeachment votes. 

Another important consideration for Collins is that she’s in line to become the next Republican chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, as Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOvernight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban On The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (R-Ala.) will eventually reach the end of his panel term limit and Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Tenn.) will retire at the end of next year.

Collins hinted during an interview with Newsradio WGAN in Maine that she has the Appropriations gavel in mind. 

“But for my position on the Appropriations Committee, a committee that I’d be in line to chair if I’m reelected, I would not be able to accomplish those goals for the state of Maine. It makes a real difference,” she said, citing her work on the military's so-called widow's tax, community development funding and a new ship for the Maine Maritime Academy.

Who becomes the next Appropriations head is largely determined by seniority, but the selection must be ratified by a vote of the entire Senate GOP conference, and there’s a chance that Trump would oppose her ascension if she voted to convict him on articles of impeachment or dealt him a significant procedural setback on witnesses or documents.

Republican senators are confident Collins will stick with them on their initial demand that the question of whether to subpoena additional witnesses and documents should wait until after the impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team present their arguments. 

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“It seems near unanimous, if it’s not unanimous,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal Senate falling behind on infrastructure Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-N.D.) of the view that the opening phase of Trump’s Senate trial should follow the precedent set by former President Clinton’s 1999 trial. 

Yet Democrats think they have a chance of picking up Collins on key impeachment votes, speculating she might be trying to burnish her centrist credentials after feeling a public backlash for voting to confirm Kavanaugh last year.

“I think the Kavanaugh vote, in talking to some people who are more familiar with her staff, is something that has been distressful because of the reaction that has come about,” Martin said.

Democrats and allied liberal groups are making her Kavanaugh vote one of their central talking points ahead of the Maine Senate race.

Emily’s List, a Democratic-allied group, circulated a fundraising email Friday highlighting Collins’s statement that since the bitter Supreme Court fight of 2018, she doesn’t regret her vote “in the least.”