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The Two Women Who Control the Senate

Harry Reid may hold the reins of power, but his legislation isn’t likely to go anywhere without Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.

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Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski before a closed session of the Senate, Dec. 20, 2010.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became one of the most powerful leaders in the chamber's history when he decided to invoke the nuclear option to change the Senate's rules for the first time in U.S. history last November. He controls the Senate with an iron fist, deciding which bills will come to the floor, whether the minority will be allowed to attach any amendments (usually, no) and pushing through executive branch and judicial nominations with a simple majority vote.

But for all the talk of the way this man has shaped the Senate, there's little he can accomplish without two women.

 

Under Senate rules, Reid still needs 60 votes to move legislation or other nominations, and he only has 55 in his own conference, including the two independents who caucus with the Democratic Party. Whatever Reid decides to bring to the floor, it isn't going anywhere without at least five Republicans on board. More often than not, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are on that list, while the other slots are filled by a rotating cast of a dozen or so other Republicans. Without Murkowski and Collins, chances for passage of many bills are slim, at best.

Murkowski's willingness to play ball with Democrats, she says, has a lot to do with how she got here.

Murkowski has one of the most intriguing political histories of any member currently serving in the Senate. The daughter of a former senator, her father appointed her to his Senate seat when he became governor in 2002. But in 2010, when she ran for reelection for just the second time, she lost the Republican primary to a tea-party candidate and looked as if she would become one of many casualties that year to the Far Right.

 

What followed was one of the most unlikely wins in modern electoral politics. Murkowski waged a write-in campaign, getting voters to turn out for a senator they had essentially just voted out of office, but eventually getting about 103,000 of them to spell her name correctly on the ballot line. Murkowski became the first Senate candidate in almost 50 years to win a write-in campaign.

"I am very cognizant of how I was returned to the Senate. It was not my party that returned me," Murkowski said in an interview with National Journal. "It was voters across the spectrum that returned me to represent them here in Washington, D.C. It was Democrats, it was independents, it was Greens, it was some tea party—not too many—it was Republicans, it was Alaskans from all areas that came together and proactively voted for me."

After going through all that, it would have been easy for Murkowski to run to the right when she returned to the Senate chamber to protect her political future; many of her colleagues have. But when she returned to the Senate in 2011, Murkowski may have slipped even closer to the center.

If you see Murkowski walking across the halls of the Capitol these days, or speaking on the floor on C-SPAN, you'll see a glint on her left wrist. Every day she wears a gold bracelet that her husband gave to her, a more fashionable copy of the rubber bracelets her 2010 campaign handed out to voters reminding them how to spell her name.

 

"I don't take this bracelet off," Murkowski said. "I wear it as a reminder of how I came to serve this second full term. And so every day I think about the constituency that I represent.… Am I working for my party or am I working for my state? And at the end of the day, that's not something I need to wrestle with for very long."

Susan Collins has a very different reason for working so often with Democrats, although she also points to her constituency. Although her voting record had conservative outside groups chomping at the bit to replace her, the third-term senator faces no Republican opposition in her reelection race this fall.

Collins attributes that to a particular pragmatism among Mainers, a noun likely to be applied by each senator to their home state. But Collins has a point. Though her House counterparts, Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, lie further to the left on the ideological spectrum, Collins is one in a long line of moderates hailing from the Pine Tree State.

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"Maine always has a good tradition of sort of not being entrenched in one party or the other," Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has served in the Senate since 1985 said. "[Sen. Angus] King is an independent and Susan Collins, [former Republican senator from Maine], Olympia Snowe before that. Gosh, I go all the way back with [former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George] Mitchell. Well, of course, Mitchell was a partisan, he was a majority leader, but he always worked across the aisle. It's a nice Maine tradition I think Susan represents that moderate kind of tradition. I just wish we had more Republican moderates."

Harkin was quick to point out, however, that while the "list is really small," Collins and Murkowski aren't the only Republicans in the Senate who are willing to work with Democrats. Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dean Heller of Nevada, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Dan Coats of Indiana, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin make up the general pool from which Democrats can usually find three other votes. Of course, it depends on the issue, Harkin added, noting that he's worked well with conservatives such as Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, as well.

Snowe retired from the Senate in 2012, citing the dysfunction and hyper-partisanship in Congress in an op-ed for The Washington Post explaining her decision. Given their similar temperaments and voting records, many expected Collins to do the same this year, but she's holding on.

"I grew up in a large family of six children, and I have a fair amount of patience and I am very persistent. I don't give up easily when I'm pursuing a goal," Collins said, when asked why she, and not Snowe, is sticking around for another term. "I enjoy legislating. I like sitting down with people who have a different view and see if we can find a middle ground. And sometimes you can't. But oftentimes, if you keep working at it, you can get to a solution where neither side is particularly happy, but each side recognizes that it is a way forward and a way to reach the goal.... I reject the notion that somehow compromise is a dirty word or a betrayal of one's principles."

Collins pointed to her work during the government shutdown as one of her proudest moments in negotiating with both parties. A week after the government shuttered, Collins gathered 14 members—split right down the middle on party lines—and came up with a plan to reopen the government for six months and raise the debt ceiling through January. Reid rejected the idea early on, but the plan provided the basis for the eventual deal he worked out with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "Susan Collins is one of my favorite senators, Democrat or Republican," Reid said at the time.

Being the adult in the room is not always an easy burden to bear. And under the nuclear option, both senators say it's gotten even harder to negotiate.

That difficulty showed in full earlier this year. Back in February, congressional Republicans had a big problem on their hands. Conscious of the drag on their party that resulted from last October's government shutdown debacle, leaders in both chambers knew that they would have to vote to raise the debt ceiling. But, particularly in the Senate, none of them wanted their fingerprints on it.

In an unusual vote that lasted for nearly an hour, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins had had enough.

The "usual suspects"—as some call them, Murkowski notes wryly—were unwilling to take yet another bullet for their colleagues without their leaders offering a pound of flesh as well. Collins was one of the first to vote to raise the ceiling, but Murkowski approached McConnell and said she would not vote for the measure unless he joined her, according to sources on the Senate floor. She huddled with McConnell and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn before the three retreated into the Republican cloakroom with Arizona's John McCain, South Dakota's John Thune and others to cajole a few more aye votes out of the conference. Finally, McConnell and Cornyn voted in favor of the bill, joining Collins, Murkowski, and eight others.

Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson praised Murkowski and Collins for their work with the majority. "[They] often want to work with us, and we value working with them," he said, before adding: "But Senator McConnell is usually trying to prevent them from working with us."

Murkowski argues, however, that her vote can't be bought so easily and that leadership in either party rarely puts any real pressure on her. "I may be a bad politician that way because I just don't have what some people term as 'trade bait.' When I'm looking at an issue, it's either good policy or it's not good policy.… My vote is something that I take very, very seriously," she said. Reid has never called her to ask for her vote, Murkowski added, and she said that she's "surprised" that the White House never has either.

Jentleson said, however, that Murkowski had spoken with Reid in the cloakroom as recently as last Wednesday about the Keystone Pipeline. Murkowski told Reid, he said, that she wanted to support a separate measure approving the pipeline, but warned that McConnell was telling Republicans not to do so.

Collins is more open about her desire to use her position to influence policy and said that Reid has called her a number of times asking for her vote. As for her Democratic colleagues, Collins says she's approached "very frequently" to sign onto their legislation.

"What I've found is in some cases, by being willing to work with people on the other side of the aisle, I'm able to advance Republican ideas or secure amendments," she said, pointing to last month's fight over unemployment-insurance benefits. Collins was one of the first to sign on to a bipartisan effort to extend the program and, knowing that Reid was unlikely to give Republicans any amendments, she worked the language of some of the potential amendments into the text of the bill itself.

Unsurprisingly, no amendments were admitted. But at least three that had been previously proposed wound up in the body of the bill. In other cases, both senators have voted against cloture in order to lodge a protest against the lack of Republican amendments.

That hasn't made it any easier for Collins and Murkowski to do their jobs. "The Senate has changed enormously, and not for the better.… It makes it more difficult to reach compromises without a doubt because it has hardened the political lines and its more difficult if I can't say to my Republican colleagues, you're going to be allowed to offer amendments," Collins said, adding that the nuclear option and other changes by the majority have "really poisoned the well" for Republicans.

"I do find that very frustrating as one who, again, is trying to find those accommodations so that we can advance good policy," Murkowski said of the rule changes. "But if I don't have good partners on both sides, on the Republican side and the Democrat side, that want to advance [legislation] because of the policy behind it, if all it is is one party trying to gain leverage over the other party, you know, count me out of that nonsense."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Sen. John Thune as hailing from North Dakota. He represents South Dakota.

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