How Seating A New Democratic Senator Gives Susan Collins More Influence

Dec 13, 2017

The election of Democrat Doug Jones in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate Race in Alabama could have a ripple effect on a number of developing political storylines, including the fate of the GOP tax plan.

That means Jones’ election could give even more leverage to Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, already a key figure in her party’s quest for “yes” votes.

Maine Public News Director Keith Shortall spoke with Maine Public Political Correspondent Steve Mistler for more on this evolving story and its many moving parts.

Shortall: What does this mean?

Mistler: So, the big picture here is that an already slim GOP majority is about to get a lot leaner.

Right now the GOP has 52 members in the Senate. That means it can only afford to lose two members on certain proposals that can pass with a straight party-line vote. A good example of one of those is the tax overhaul bill — I’ll come back to that.

One way to think about this is that Collins is suddenly going to gain a lot of influence and clout in her conference. That’s because she’s shown a willingness to occasionally buck the party line. That’s why a lot of pundits were calling her the most powerful member of Congress in the immediate aftermath of Jones’ improbable victory Tuesday.

But that additional influence can be a double-edged sword, too.

If Collins is going to have a lot more clout, that’s going to come with a whole new level of expectations and scrutiny — from Republicans and Democrats alike — for the positions that she takes.

You could argue that it’s going to be a lot harder for Collins to walk the line between keeping the left and the center happy, while also appeasing the Republican base.

And what does this mean for the tax overhaul?

For congressional Republicans, it apparently means step on the gas and pass the controversial overhaul before seating Jones.

Tactically, this makes sense because Jones’ victory could really throw a wrench in the tax bill, because it narrows the window that the GOP can pass the tax bill with a party line vote.

GOP leaders are acutely aware of this. The latest out of Washington, D.C., is that the GOP-controlled House and Senate have agreed in principle to a deal to reconcile two versions of the tax bill.

As we’ve reported, Collins was provided a number of assurances in exchange for her support of the tax bill. It seems like a safe bet that some of the tax changes she wants will be in the final version, but it’s unclear whether the health care-related bills she said she wants will make it.

Members of the GOP-controlled House have already announced that they oppose the health care bills, which Collins hopes will offset the tax bill’s repeal of the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that most Americans buy health insurance.

Conceivably, Jones’ victory means Collins could leverage her newfound power to make sure those bills pass. But that only works if Jones is seated before the final vote on the tax bill. And it sounds like Collins is on board with the idea of passing the tax bill before Jones is seated.

We haven’t had a chance to talk to her, but according to a report from Politico, Collins says the Alabama election shouldn’t drive the timetable for passing the tax bill.

It’s worth pointing out that she had a different position in 2010, when Republican Scott Brown won a Senate seat that took away Democrats’ ability to ram through the Affordable Care Act. At the time, Collins said Brown’s election should have prompted Congress to start drafting the ACA from scratch to achieve a bipartisan supermajority.

But that’s not what she appears to support now with tax policy.

So it seems like Collins could become more influential, but she’s willing to wait until the tax bill passes.

Yeah, and I think that really speaks to the point that this additional clout cuts both ways for her. Progressives may want her to use her influence to pass what they want, but conservatives still expect her to, you know, vote like a Republican.

And there is no higher a priority for Republicans right now than passing that tax bill. They control Congress and the White House and they have no big legislative achievements going into next year’s midterm elections.

So it’s going to be really interesting to see how she uses this newfound influence and manages competing interests after Jones is seated.

This interview has been edited for clarity.