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.

WASHINGTON, DC: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) (L) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) (R) move between meetings before a closed session of the Senate about the new START Treaty, a ratification of a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia, in the U.S. Capitol December 20, 2010 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
May 12, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

“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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