Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus GOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus MORE (R-Maine) is emerging as the most important vote in the Senate battle over President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report 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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children 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 KavanaughProgressive group knocks McConnell for talking judicial picks during coronavirus Trump nominates former Kavanaugh clerk for influential appeals court Coronavirus isn't the only reason Congress should spend less time in DC 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 StabenowCoronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus Coronavirus stimulus talks hit setback as crisis deepens Democrats call for stimulus to boost Social Security benefits by 0 a month 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 RomneyTrump selects White House lawyer for coronavirus inspector general Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans 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 MurkowskiOil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves GOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus Murkowski pushes Mnuchin for oil company loans 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 FlakeMcSally campaign to suspend TV ads, canvassing amid pandemic Coronavirus isn't the only reason Congress should spend less time in DC Trump Jr. says he inherited 'Tourette's of the thumbs' from his father MORE (R-Ariz.), then-Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE (D-N.D.) and Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPoliticians mourn the death of Bill Withers Pressure mounts for national parks closure amid coronavirus White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package 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 CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate includes 0M for mail-in voting in coronavirus spending deal Hillicon Valley: Facebook reports huge spike in usage during pandemic | Democrats push for mail-in voting funds in coronavirus stimulus | Trump delays deadline to acquire REAL ID Democrats press for more stimulus funding to boost mail-in voting 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 ClintonFormer Obama adviser Plouffe predicts 'historical level' of turnout by Trump supporters Poll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Whoopi Goldberg presses Sanders: 'Why are you still in the race?' 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 ShelbyFive things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens Coronavirus bill includes more than billion in SNAP funding MORE (R-Ala.) will eventually reach the end of his panel term limit and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSticking points force stimulus package talks to spill into Sunday GOP drafting stimulus package without deal with Democrats Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday 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 CramerInfrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens GOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC GOP senator apologizes for tweet calling Pelosi 'retarded,' blames autocorrect 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.”