Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSara Gideon wins Democratic race to challenge Susan Collins The Hill's Campaign Report: Key races take shape in Alabama, Texas, Maine Illinois House Republican leader won't attend GOP convention in Florida: 'It's not going to be a safe environment' MORE (R-Maine) is emerging as the most important vote in the Senate battle over President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff 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 DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K Democrats see immigration reform as topping Biden agenda GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle 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 KavanaughSara Gideon wins Democratic race to challenge Susan Collins The Hill's Campaign Report: Key races take shape in Alabama, Texas, Maine 5 key races to watch on Tuesday 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 StabenowACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list 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 RomneyIllinois House Republican leader won't attend GOP convention in Florida: 'It's not going to be a safe environment' Judge seeks copy of order commuting Roger Stone sentence Top Mueller prosecutor: 'We could have done more' in Russia investigation 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 MurkowskiIllinois House Republican leader won't attend GOP convention in Florida: 'It's not going to be a safe environment' Sixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads 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 FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism 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) ManchinFormer VA staffer charged with giving seven patients fatal insulin doses Biden opens door to supporting nixing legislative filibuster Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads 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 CoonsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Reid Wilson says political winners are governors who listened to scientists and public health experts; 12 states record new highs for seven-day case averages Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources 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 ClintonDemocrat Dana Balter to face Rep. John Katko in NY House rematch GOP lawmaker: Don't believe polls showing Trump behind Biden Kyle Van De Water wins New York GOP primary to challenge Rep. Antonio Delgado 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 ShelbySessions fights for political life in Alabama runoff House panel advances health bill with B in emergency COVID-19 funds Senate panel to vote on controversial Trump Fed pick Shelton MORE (R-Ala.) will eventually reach the end of his panel term limit and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderConservative group launches ad campaign for Rep. Roger Marshall in Kansas Senate race Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report Sixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention 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 CramerGOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle GOP skeptical of polling on Trump Senate passes sanctions bill targeting China over Hong Kong law 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.”