State of Maine: Collins gets burned by realities of the new Senate 



Sen. Susan Collins is in a pickle. Heavily criticized for her support of Brett Kavanaugh for a Supreme Court seat, she is now facing the music. Justice Kavanaugh is sounding an awful lot like someone who is about to help unravel Roe v. Wade, the longstanding protection of reproductive rights that Collins says Kavanaugh previously told her was “settled law.” 

Even her friends questioned the Senator’s acceptance of Kavanaugh’s reassurance on Roe v. Wade prior to his nomination. Her vote was critical in electing him to the Supreme Court, and now it is his vote that may decide the future of women’s right to choose. Even as Sen. Collins reiterates her support for Roe, Justice Kavanaugh is not so sure. 

With the Supreme Court vote still pending, we don’t yet know the outcome of the current case before the court. What we do know is that along with so many other traditions long upheld in Congress, the vital element of interpersonal relationships is dead and gone. 

Senators at both the federal and state levels speak nostalgically of the days when, at the end of even the most rancorous debates, the evenings were reserved for bipartisan gatherings. At the state level, the Augusta House was the place to be after hours. State senators stayed there during the week when the Senate was in session and ate (and drank) there after hours. 

There, the same debates were held but in a more freestyle fashion. Unfettered from the formal rules of Senate debate, the members let fly with equal measures of argument and insult, laced with plenty of laughter. When the action returned to the Senate floor the next day, senators understood each other in a more personal way. They may not have been soulmates, but they were able to reach agreement on many pieces of legislation. 

The same was true in Washington. Among the congressional hangouts was the Old Ebbitts Grill, where denizens of Capitol Hill from both parties gathered to eat, drink and rake over the issues of the day. Spending time in informal settings changed the way senators saw each other in the chamber on the Hill. Deals were possible; consensus could be reached. 

Now, there is little if any time to be together informally. This has weakened, if not destroyed, the ability of the old “deans of the Senate” to resolve the issues of the day. President Joe Biden was acclaimed for his deep understanding of how the Senate works, but it does not work that way anymore. The institution once built on relationships is now based on manning the barricades to defend against any interaction between the parties. 

“Master of the Senate” Lyndon B. Johnson would not recognize the place. Pulling the strings of interpersonal relationships cannot work when there are no interpersonal relationships. Calling a colleague on the other side of the aisle or getting together for a beer simply does not happen. The skills once admired for communicating across the aisle by the most experienced senators are now seen as consorting with the enemy. Genuine friendships across party lines likely died with John McCain. Even mere civility seems a thing of the past. 

So, when a U.S. senator (Susan Collins) has a conversation with a Supreme Court candidate (Brett Kavanaugh) who assures her, or at least gives her reason to believe that he has assured her, that he will not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, failing to live up to that promise is not the cardinal sin it was once taken to be. 

In September, Justice Kavanaugh joined court conservatives in declining to block a Texas statute banning abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, at which time most women are not yet aware they are pregnant. Now the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on a Mississippi law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks, and comments from Justice Kavanaugh indicate that his opinion on abortion law may not be as settled as he told Collins they were. As for the much-cited matter of legal precedent, Kavanaugh said the court had overturned plenty of them. 

Did our senator, a person of integrity herself, err in expecting the same of others? Despite her experience and commitment to the office, was she snookered? Justice Kavanaugh did what he needed to do to get elected. If Sen. Collins was playing by the old rules when promises given were promises kept, that’s her problem.  

Sen. Collins chose to honor the old Senate code and collided full force with the new Senate reality. The relationships on which deals were built are no longer to be trusted. It’s every senator for him- or herself. The result? A U.S. Senate that is in permanent stalemate mode, driven by politics alone and unable to do its job. 

 

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County. 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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