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Pulse Newsletter: Sen. Susan Collins Seeks Changes To Insurrection Commission Amid Growing GOP Opposition

Susan Collins
Evan Vucci
/
AP
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives for the signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Washington.

In this week’s newsletter: Spotlight on Sen. Susan Collins and the insurrection commission; GOP operatives use party-run website to promote a misleading hit on Congressman Jared Golden; potential trouble for a pro-Collins super PAC; and the legislative session hits the home stretch as lawmakers return to State House.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has previously expressed interest in an independent commission to investigate the attempted Jan. 6 insurrection by extremist supporters of former President Donald Trump.

However, it’s still unclear if Collins will vote for the bill that would create such a commission that’s modeled after the one that examined the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex Act, but not before Republican leaders in the House and Senate announced that they would oppose the bill. The announcement by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, of California, was framed by some as another sign that Republicans are eager to memory-hole the insurrection even as Trump continues to vigorously assert the stolen election falsehood that inspired it.

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Feeding that sentiment is the fact that McConnell, who blamed Trump for the insurrection but voted against convicting him on impeachment charges, had previously expressed support for the commission, yet declared the House bill to create one “slanted and unbalanced.” McCarthy executed a similar pivot, first by handpicking Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y. to negotiate with Democrats and draft the commission bill, then quickly distancing himself from it - and Katko.

35 Republicans still supported the commission bill, but McConnell’s opposition appears to signal problems for its passage in a Senate controlled by Democrats by the narrowest of margins.

Now the spotlight is on Collins, who not only blamed Trump for the Capitol riot, but also voted to convict him on the associated impeachment charges. So far, Collins is not a definitive yes or no on the commission bill that cleared the House. In a written statement, she said she supports a commission “to examine the events leading up to the attack, find out exactly what happened, and learn lessons for the future,” but also that changes needed to be made.

For now, those changes appear to center on who picks the staff that will do the heavy investigative lifting of the commission. Under the House bill, the staff would be chosen by the chairperson, who would be picked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, and “in consultation” with the vice chairperson, who would be picked by McConnell and McCarthy.

It’s not clear exactly how Collins would change that process, but during an impromptu interview with NBC News at the Capitol she said she wants the commission to finish its work by the end of the year to “avoid the partisanship that inevitably is associated with an election year.”

She said she was considering an amendment with proposed changes.

Collins also indicated that the commission might want to explore “violent extremists on both sides," a remark that quickly drew ridicule among liberal Twitter users.

Nevertheless, Collins’ support for the commission, should it materialize in an affirmative vote, may not help its chances for passage. That’s because 10 Republicans would need to join Democrats to avoid a GOP filibuster in the Senate. So far, it doesn’t look like those GOP votes are there.

As for Collins, she’s already on thin ice with the president’s supporters back home after voting to convict Trump for the insurrection. While Trump supporters in the Maine Republican Party failed to censure her for that vote, they still wield a lot of influence in the party -- just as the former president does.

Additionally, some congressional Republicans have been more candid that an insurrection commission will not be helpful in their quest to retake control of Congress in 2022.

“Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 election, I think, is a day lost on being able to draw contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda,” Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, told the Washington Post.

Echo chamber fail

For weeks Republican operatives have been trying to entangle Democratic U.S. Congressman Jared Golden in a dispute involving Maine fishermen and efforts to develop offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine.

Republicans have already roughed up Gov. Janet Mills for her support of the project, an effort they hope to leverage when she’s up for reelection next year. Golden is also up for reelection, and on Thursday, Republicans groups deployed echo chamber criticism of a statement he made last year supporting the Aqua Ventus project that’s at the center of the dispute.

The Congressional Leadership Fund called Golden’s support “woke environmentalism.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee said Golden is “kowtowing” to the environmentalists who have long backed him.

Both hits linked to a post in the Maine Examiner. The Examiner is run by Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party -- although a reader would have to dig into the site’s “about us” section to know that because the posts posing as news stories have no bylines.

“Golden isn’t shy about showing his support for offshore wind, despite concerns of those fisheries that will be affected by it,” the Examiner wrote, before attributing the following quote to Golden, “We are proud to see the project’s progress and applaud the $100 million public-private partnership.”

There’s just one problem: Golden wasn’t the only one who made the statement. It was a joint statement by Maine’s entire congressional delegation in August of last year.

“We are proud to see the project’s progress and applaud the $100 million public-private partnership launched (Wednesday), which will accelerate UMaine’s development of its innovative technology and create jobs,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden said in the statement. “Maine’s offshore wind resource potential is 36 times greater than the state’s electricity demand, making this project so significant for Maine’s clean energy future.”

Naturally, the Examiner makes no mention of Collins’ support for Aqua Ventus, which she expressed at least twice, including during her reelection campaign last year.

Strawmen

The FBI’s investigation into a Hawaiian defense contractor’s donations to Collins’ reelection campaign and a super PAC that supported her doesn’t appear to target the senator or her campaign committee.

However, a piece of evidence obtained by the FBI, and publicized in its recently unsealed search warrant, suggests that the super PAC bolstering her reelection bid may have to answer some questions about its knowledge of a donor scheme allegedly orchestrated by defense contractor Martin Kao and his associates.

The FBI alleges that Kao and his business partner broke two laws, one that prohibits donors to political campaigns from contributing in the name of someone else -- also known as a straw donor -- and another that bars federal contractors from giving to political committees at all.

Kao’s firm was considered a federal contractor after Collins helped Navatek, since renamed as the Martin Defense Group, secure an $8 million defense contract in 2019.

In addition to allegedly reimbursing friends and family for roughly $45,000 in direct donations to Collins’ campaign in a straw donor scheme, Kao is also alleged to have diverted $150,000 in corporate funds to the 1820 PAC, a violation of the federal contractor ban. The 1820 PAC spent $12 million supporting Collins’ reelection bid last year.

Separate from Kao’s legal jeopardy is whether the people running the 1820 PAC knew that he had created a phony limited liability company to hide the $150,000 donation and circumvent the contractor prohibition. The FBI search warrant suggests Kao wanted credit for his super PAC donation and he emailed associates of the PAC to let them know that he had created the phony company.

“I just received confirmation from our bank that the new account for the Society of Young Women Scientists and Engineers will be up and ready to go by early next week,” Kao wrote to organizers of the 1820 PAC in Dec. of 2019.

According to Brendan Fischer, with the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog, PACs are not allowed to accept contributions when they know they're being made in the name of another.

It’s unclear if the FBI is interested in the 1820 PAC’s knowledge of the donation, or just Kao, who is already in a lot of legal trouble. Last year he was arrested for defrauding a pandemic program that provided forgivable loans to small businesses. The search warrant allowed the FBI to obtain Kao’s smartphone and a hard drive that may contain communications between Kao and the political committees.

Legislature returns to the State House

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Maine State House

Pandemic restrictions have closed the State House to the general public for more than a year, but that’s about to change.

Legislative leaders voted Thursday to resume public access to the State House beginning Monday, the same day that lawmakers themselves will be permitted to gather and work in the building following the loosening of pandemic restrictions by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. Throughout the session the Legislature has been holding committee meetings and public hearings virtually, while occasionally gathering in-person at the Augusta Civic Center for House and Senate sessions.

Those sessions are expected to resume at the State House beginning June 2. Committee hearings will continue to take place virtually, but committees don’t have much work left to do.

The Legislature itself, however, has a host of big-ticket bills to vote on before the end of the special session that’s currently scheduled through June 16, but could be extended.

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