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Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate locks in hate crimes deal, setting up Thursday passage Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban MORE (R-Maine) is emerging as the most important vote in the Senate battle over President TrumpDonald TrumpUS gives examples of possible sanctions relief to Iran GOP lawmaker demands review over FBI saying baseball shooting was 'suicide by cop' House passes bill aimed at stopping future Trump travel ban 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 DurbinCornyn, Sinema to introduce bill aimed at addressing border surge Harris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge 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 KavanaughFeehery: The left-wing hysteria machine Biden's court-packing theater could tame the Supreme Court's conservatives Trump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting 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 StabenowHouse Dems to unveil drug pricing measure ahead of Biden package Overnight Energy: Biden reportedly will pledge to halve US emissions by 2030 | Ocasio-Cortez, Markey reintroduce Green New Deal resolution Serious about climate change? Get serious about agriculture 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 RomneySenate panel greenlights sweeping China policy bill The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Tensions rise as U.S. waits for Derek Chauvin verdict Mark Halperin hired by bipartisan policy group No Labels 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 MurkowskiHarris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban 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 FlakeFive reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Former GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' MORE (R-Ariz.), then-Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampBill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives Harrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment MORE (D-N.D.) and Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinHouse Democrats eye passing DC statehood bill for second time Biden dispatches Cabinet members to sell infrastructure plan On The Money: Treasury creates hub to fight climate change | Manchin throws support behind union-backed PRO Act | Consumer bureau rolls out rule to bolster CDC eviction ban 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 CoonsBipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge White House readies another massive spending proposal How to save the Amazon rainforest 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 ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' 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 ShelbySenate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban Biden dispatches Cabinet members to sell infrastructure plan Senate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl MORE (R-Ala.) will eventually reach the end of his panel term limit and Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderSenate GOP faces retirement brain drain The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality Blunt's retirement deals blow to McConnell inner circle 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 CramerBiden administration faces big decision on whether to wade into Dakota Access fight OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Obama marine monument designation | Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river | White House climate adviser meets with oil and gas companies Senate GOP pushes back on list of participants in oil and gas leasing forum 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.”