When even failure on gun control feels like a small victory

Sen. Susan Collins rallied a bipartisan majority of 52 senators who supported her effort to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns – a significant achievement, even if it ultimately fell short.

Alex Brandon/AP
Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, armed with a green folder of handouts about her compromise gun bill, walked toward the Senate on Monday, June 20.

Every senator knew that the four gun-control measures brought up post-Orlando were going down in a partisan duel on the Senate floor on Monday.

So Susan Collins, the moderate Republican from Maine, came armed for compromise.

There she stood in her pale yellow suit, easily visible and strategically positioned near a door where Republicans enter the chamber – but also not too far from the Democratic side. As the defeats piled up, she chatted with senators from both parties, handing them a one-page summary of an alternative measure from her folder.

This is classic Senator Collins, working her colleagues with calm persuasion, facts, and analysis, looking for common ground on one of the country’s most contentious issues. She is, say senators on both sides, a highly respected bridge-builder at a time when Washington is at a defining moment on divisive gun politics. “One of the very best,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee.

“The main thing Susan Collins does is ... her homework, so when she’s talking for example about what to do about terrorists with guns, she’s usually the best informed senator in the room and everyone listens to her,” he says. “That helps her when she’s working across the aisle, and that helps her when she’s working in our caucus.”

Senators vote for compromise

On Thursday, Senator Collins saw what she had achieved. In the face of a procedural effort to kill her "no-fly, no-buy" compromise, all Democrats present in the chamber, plus eight Republicans and an independent, voted to keep it alive.

That's a bipartisan majority of 52 senators who supported her effort to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns. But it fell eight votes short of the 60 it would need to go any further. That may well have been only six votes short, had Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein (D) of California been present.

It also did not help her cause that a last-minute alternative offered by Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin, may well have siphoned votes away from her compromise. His effort was roundly defeated.

If any gun measure had a chance in Congress, it was the Collins compromise, which prevents individuals on the “no fly” list and a related narrow list from buying firearms in a gun store. It alerts the FBI if anyone who has been in a much broader database over the past five years purchases a gun – a provision that would have pinged authorities in the case of the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen.

Despite the lack of a current path forward, Collins still called Thursday's vote “a good sign.” Talking with reporters afterward, she said that “this is the first time in a very long time that there has been a significant bipartisan vote on an issue that would limit access to guns to those who are on terrorist watch lists.”

She was also encouraged by moderate Republicans who have expressed an interest in introducing companion legislation in the House. That’s another “real sign of progress,” she said. “People are eager to come up with a bipartisan approach to a real problem that does not compromise Second Amendment rights.” On the other hand, she told reporters earlier that the 25-hour sit-in by House Democrats demanding a vote on gun legislation was not helpful because it ginned up partisanship.

The senior senator from Maine ranks as the most bipartisan member of the Senate, according to an index by the Lugar Center and George Washington University. She certainly earned that ranking in this latest effort.

Sen. Graham, an AR-15 owner, supported it 

The compromise is more narrowly targeted than Senate Democrats wanted, covering 109,000 people worldwide but only 2,700 Americans or legal residents. Still, she won over Democrats, who viewed it as a step in the right direction, and as leverage to move on to expanded background checks.

Collins had a much harder sell in her own party. The measure’s process of appeal for individuals who may be wrongly on the lists was not judged robust enough for many Republicans. The powerful National Rifle Association came out against it as an unconstitutional denial of Second Amendment rights. On Thursday, 46 Republicans voted to kill the legislation.

When addressing such criticisms, Collins simply echoes the majority view of Americans.

“This is common sense. It does not infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of Americans. All it does is say, that if you’re too dangerous to board an airplane, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun,” Collins said on the floor just before Thursday’s procedural vote.

It’s a position that even hawkish Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, one of 11 co-sponsors of the Collins compromise, can embrace – along with his AR-15 rifle. To the NRA, he said at a press conference on Tuesday, “every right, whether speech or buying a weapon, or any other constitutional right, has boundaries on it.”

The compromise, he added, “makes sense to me.”

Five generations of legislators

Collins and the junior senator from Maine, independent Angus King, who also co-sponsored the legislation, practice a pragmatism that caused a Democratic colleague to ask Sen. King: “Is there something in the water in Maine that gives people common sense?”

The answer lies not in the water, but in a political tradition that has had a significant influence on Collins.

She grew up in the town of Caribou, in the northeastern tip of Maine, not far from the Canadian border. Her family runs a lumber business founded by her ancestors in 1844, and five generations on her father’s side served in the state legislature. Her father, too, was in the state senate and both of her parents served as mayor of Caribou.

“There’s a tradition and history of independence” among Maine’s senators in Washington, and Collins and Senator King – a former governor – reflect that, says former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Mainer who left the Senate in 2013 because of the hyper-partisanship and dysfunction. “We’re a very practical people.”

Senator Snowe lists her independent-minded predecessors: Democrat George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland; Sen. William Cohen, who as a House member, became one of the first Republicans to break ranks and demand the impeachment of President Nixon during the Watergate crisis (Collins was interning for him at the time and went on to work for him); Democrat Ed Muskie, former governor, senator, and secretary of State. 

But it was Republican Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the US House and Senate – and to represent Maine on Capitol Hill – who set Collins on her journey to the Senate.

Collins was just 18 years old, a senior at Caribou High School, when she had the opportunity to meet Smith in her private Washington office as part of a youth Senate program.

“I arrived at Senator Smith’s office a bit breathless about meeting her,” Collins recounts in a book about Senate women, “Nine and Counting,” published in 2000 (20 women currently serve in the Senate). To the student’s great surprise, Smith spent nearly two hours with her, answering Collins’s many questions. “But what I most remember, was her urging me always to stand tall for what I believed in.”

Smith described to Collins her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech, in which she denounced McCarthyism on the Senate floor. 

“I remember being so proud that Margaret Chase Smith was my senator,” recalled Collins, who hung a signed copy of Smith’s creed of public service in her personal office when she became a senator herself.

'Not afraid to buck either party'

An independent streak runs through Collins, too. While she often votes with her party on national security and sometimes on fiscal issues, she has parted ways on gay rights, campaign-finance reform, and man-made climate change, among many other issues.

The NRA graded her at C+ in 2012. Similarly, the anti-tax group Club for Growth gave her a 37 percent lifetime score in 2013 – the lowest of any Republican senator. Yet in 2014, she soared to reelection for a fourth term, her constituents rewarding a conscientious legislator who last year cast her 6,000th consecutive vote.

“I admire that she’s not afraid to buck either party, and put the American people first to get things done,” says Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, a former state attorney general who played a key role in writing the due process part of Collins compromise.

It’s that independence that gives Collins the leverage to make deals and pass legislation – along with her legendary command of the facts and her gracious yet forthright manner. In the Senate, where anything of major importance requires 60 votes to pass, Collins, with the help of just a few others, can sometimes tip things one way or the other.

In 2009, Collins was one of only three Republicans to vote for the stimulus package to rescue an economy in free fall. She wanted for Maine the jobs the package promised, but she and her colleagues – including Senator Snowe – were not happy with the price tag, which at one point neared $900 billion. It got whittled down to $787 billion. 

In 2004, she worked with Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent, to reorganize American intelligence after 9/11, creating a new counterterrorism center and the office of the director of national intelligence.

On the other hand, when President Obama came courting her to support the Affordable Care Act, she gave him the cold shoulder. She’s no fan of “Obamacare,” and bristled at his overture to a few Republicans for a bill written largely by Democrats.

Still, when GOP resistance to the healthcare law plunged the country into a partial government shutdown in October 2013, she tried to find a bipartisan way out. It didn’t succeed, but it helped pave the way for an agreement that soon ended the crisis.

On the gun compromise, Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the Senate minority whip, backed the legislation. “What is driving this more than anything is our respect for Susan Collins,” said Sen. Durbin, who worked with the Mainer on the effort. “The default mechanism is to give her a chance,” said Durbin on Tuesday. The senator is responsible for rounding up Democratic votes.

Responsiveness to the people

Collins vows to keep working on this issue. “I never give up,” she said after coming off the Senate floor. The shortfall shows a Congress in need of more people like Collins, often described as one of the last Republican moderates on the Hill, says former Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, a storied bridge-builder himself.

“I hope [she’s] not a dying breed,” says the senator, who lost in the primaries to a tea party candidate in 2012.

The reason his center and Georgetown University came up with their Bipartisan Index was to reverse “the very disturbing trend” of partisanship. Senator Lugar says the index is having some effect as members of Congress, responding to articles in their hometown papers, approach him on how to improve their rankings.

The answer is simple, he says. Offer legislation with bipartisan co-sponsors, or try to co-sponsor legislation from the other party. The current gun debate is a case in point.

“Once again, this illustrates the importance of a leader like Susan Collins, who wasn’t willing to leave it” at 0-4 on an issue of American safety, he says. 
“This may not meet everybody’s measure, but the need to show responsiveness of our legislative body, to be active at a time of national peril, is very, very important.”

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