It’s no secret that politicians like to talk about themselves. Point them toward a gaggle of cameras and microphones and you can almost guarantee they’ll drone on ad nauseam about all they’ve done, how they did it, what they plan to do next …
Not so for Sen. Angus King on Friday, moments after he touched down in Portland aboard the morning shuttle from Washington, D.C.
“In my public life, or in my life generally, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public official manifest greater courage and commitment to their constituents as Susan Collins has over the last week,” King said. “And the people of Maine need to understand that.”
Hear, hear, Senator. And then some.
The whole nation still buzzes – and rightfully so – about Sen. John McCain’s dramatic, post-brain-surgery arrival on Capitol Hill and his even more dramatic vote in the wee hours Friday to drive a stake through Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But the award for pure courage in this partisan debacle goes, first and foremost, to Maine’s own Sen. Collins.
From Tuesday’s vote to reopen debate on the repeal, to the two failed measures to replace it with Scotch tape and bubble gum, to the final “skinny repeal” showdown around 1:30 a.m. Friday, Maine’s senior senator never wavered.
She thought it was a bad deal and she said so, as did so many of her Republican colleagues who trusted, for no apparent reason, that the House would negotiate a real bill in conference committee rather than simply pass the Senate’s stinker outright and send it on to the White House.
But unlike all of them save McCain and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Collins chose principle over pragmatism. Of the three Republican votes it took to send President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell packing, it was Collins who said “no” first.
Quoting from a text he’d just sent to his son, King observed, “I hope when my moment comes, I’ll have as much guts as she had.”
There have been times during her 20 years in the Senate when critics, myself included, have chided Collins for not taking a strong enough stand against her party’s leadership. Others within her party, on the other hand, have branded her a “RINO” – the Tea Party moniker for a “Republican in name only” who sits too close to the center and thus gives “real conservatism” a bad name.
But last week was different. Despite overwhelming pressure from McConnell and Pence to get with the program and kill Obamacare because … well, just because, Collins staked her ground and never wavered until finally, a half hour or so before the climactic vote, Pence waved the white flag.
“He said to me, ‘You sure are tough,’ ” Collins, still operating on two hours of sleep, recalled in an interview late Friday afternoon. “And he softened it by putting his arm around me when he said it.”
No calls from the Oval Office? No threats of retribution such as those leveled against Murkowski – at the president’s behest – by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke?
“Obviously they wanted my vote, but none of them have been in any way comparable to what Lisa has experienced,” said Collins, who was lobbied directly by both Pence and now-departed White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Her only contact with Trump came late last month when the president hosted an arm-twisting lunch with Republican senators and conspicuously seated Collins and Murkowski on either side of him. In a photo from the event, Collins appears, shall we say, less than comfortable.
“I know,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve got to work on being more relaxed, I guess.”
Not here in Maine, she doesn’t.
Back on July 4, both Collins and King traveled to Washington County to march in Eastport’s Independence Day parade. On Friday, both recalled how, from start to finish, it was all health care all the time – punctuated by pleas that they stand fast against the House repeal bill that had landed with a thud in the Senate.
“Keep in mind that that’s a county that went heavily for Donald Trump,” noted Collins. “And what I found as I walked the length of the parade is that over and over, people were calling out to me, ‘Thank you, Susan,’ and ‘Thank you for opposing the House bill,’ and ‘Stay strong, Susan,’ and coming out and literally hugging me.”
One woman, a longtime Republican who went all the way back to Collins’ run for governor in 1994, spotted the senator at the end of the parade and made a beeline for her.
“Uh-oh,” thought Collins, expecting an earful about her well-publicized opposition to the House bill.
“Instead, she was bringing her grandson, who has cystic fibrosis, to meet me,” Collins said. “And she said, ‘That bill is terrible. And my grandson has cystic fibrosis, he’s going to have it his entire life – it’s a pre-existing condition for him. And I’m really worried about what’s going to happen to him and whether he’s going to be protected and be able to get insurance.’”
That encounter, more than any other, hit home. It reinforced Collins’ belief that health care “really cuts across party lines” and directly impacts people of all political stripes.
And so it came down to this: On this most critical of issues, Collins’ constituents spoke loudly and clearly. And when it truly counted, much to her credit, she listened.
That said, Collins’ breakaway vote will not soon be forgotten on Capitol Hill. Mused King, ‘How she’ll be treated in the (Senate Republican) caucus and what comes next by the administration, who knows?”
Still, echoing Pence, King added: “Susan is tough. She’s really tough. I think she’ll be fine.”
Friday morning, as she wearily walked off her plane at Bangor International Airport, Collins stepped out into a terminal gate packed with passengers waiting to board their outbound flight.
She recognized no one. But several of them recognized her and began to applaud.
Within seconds, the whole terminal was clapping, many people rising to their feet as their sleep-deprived senator passed.
Never before, throughout her two decades and 6,300 votes in the Senate, had Collins received such a spontaneous welcome home.
“It was absolutely extraordinary,” she said. “It was just so affirming of what happens when you do the right thing.”
Hope, in this summer of our discontent, springs eternal.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: