Dec. 21: The Changes In Washington, And What They Mean For Maine Sen. Susan Collins

Dec 21, 2018

The political landscape is about to change in Washington and Augusta. The changes will involve the legislative branches in both places, as well as the executive branch in Augusta. It's the topic this week of Maine's Political Pulse. Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz talks about the changes - and what they mean for Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins - with State House Bureau Chief Steve Mistler and Chief Political Correspondent Mal Leary.

Credit Maine Public staff

Let's go ahead and start today with the new Congress which will convene in January. It will be a Democratic House, a slightly more Republican Senate. My first question is what is that going to mean for Maine's Susan Collins?

LEARY:  I think what you've got going is that Sen. Collins will continue to play her kind of broker role as a moderate member of the caucus - a dwindling number of moderate Republican senators I will add. But, nonetheless, there has to be working across the aisle to get anything done, and working across the aisle not only means working across the aisle within each chamber but across to the other chamber. And because of her reputation as a moderate dealing with Democrats on a lot of different issues, I think her role is going to be pretty much the same as it has been - maybe a little less crucial because they no longer are just a 51-49 vote.  They've got a little bit more latitude. But the reality is in the Senate most of the big pieces of legislation need 60 votes to go anywhere. The reality is that means you're going to have to have Democrats and Republicans to get to that 60 figure.

MISTLER:  You know, for the last couple of years at least, she's been sort of this key swing vote, potentially. While that role will probably be diminished going forward, I don't think the pressure on her is going to be at all. We just had Sara Gideon, who's the speaker of the house here in Maine, write an op ed in The Bangor Daily News that essentially wanted to remind everybody about Susan Collins' vote on the tax legislation that the GOP passed last year, and its inevitable effect on the Affordable Care Act. Now, that op ed I saw as a marker by Sara Gideon, basically saying, a) that she's serious about potentially challenging Susan Collins in 2020, and also that Democrats are going to keep the pressure on her. They see her votes on the tax bill, the health care component of that, and Brett Kavanaugh, who is now on the Supreme Court, as potentially fatal decisions by Susan Collins. I expect that Democrats are going to be taking an x-ray to every move that she makes over the next couple of years. While her vote may not matter as much in terms of what happens in Congress, what she decides to do, and the votes that she takes, will matter in terms of her re-election hopes in 2020.

Now, Mal, you mentioned of course the big pieces of legislation in the Senate need 60 votes to get past potential filibusters. But Steve you pointed out the issues that were raised by the president's judicial selection of Brett Kavanaugh - there will be more judicial selections. There are now 53 [Republican] votes in the Senate. So perhaps she has a little more room the next two years to back away from other potential controversial judicial appointments, and I think, also, some budgetary measures, too, that would only require a majority in the Senate.

MISTLER:  You're right, Irwin. I think while her votes may not be as consequential, they will be closely watched, and I think that's the important distinction to make. While she may not be the person who puts a judicial nominee, a controversial one, over the top, Democrats are going to be watching those votes anyway because it's a reminder of the votes that were consequential this year, and the previous year too.

Do we have any idea what kind of legislation she would like to see emerge from this Congress on a bipartisan basis, or perhaps thinks is possible?

LEARY:  What we're talking about, of the politics of her re-election, is different from the politics of getting legislation through. I think you're still going to see her working closely with Angus King in the Senate and,  quite frankly, with Chellie Pingree in the House of Representatives. The two of them serve on their respective appropriations committees. Those are the two most powerful committees in Congress that decide how money is spent. And in the course of all of the dysfunction in Washington, we forget - 75 percent of the funding for the federal budget has already been approved and is law. This thing of a partial shutdown of the federal government only affects about 25 percent of the spending. So while it is important and does affect a number of federal workers, it's far less than the sort of thing we've seen in the past year. They actually were successful in getting some of the biggest of the appropriations bills, like defense, through.  They will work at the congressional level for the benefit of the state and the benefit of funding. At the same time, people are playing the political games to try to set up for 2020.

Both Sens. Collins and King also step up in Senate seniority in the new Congress. Is that going to make any significant changes in any of their committee assignments?

LEARY:  They do move up in seniority. For example, Collins may get a different subcommittee in appropriations than she has now. All of that is yet to be decided. 

All right. Well, looking forward we have late news into Political Pulse headquarters here:  Gov.-elect Janet Mills is going to nominate Bruce Van Note, long time deputy commissioner with the Department of Transportation, to succeed David Bernhardt at the state Transportation Department. I believe that gets the governor up to four nominees that she's announced so far, which does now put her perhaps a little bit ahead of where Paul LePage was at this time eight years ago.

LEARY:  And I think that pace is going to continue. The governor-elect told me that she's trying to get as many of these done as soon possible before the inauguration. I'm suspecting we're going to see several more next week.

Great. Gentlemen thank you very much for the time, as always. We appreciate it.

LEARY:  Thank you, Irwin.

MISTLER:  Thank you.