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Impeachment lands Sen. Collins in familiar spot: crosshairs

WASHINGTON, D.C.Facing perhaps her toughest reelection fight, veteran Sen. Susan Collins has parachuted into familiar terrain — the heart of a hot-button issue, this time President Donald Trump's impeachment.

With Senate trial proceedings starting Tuesday, the moderate Maine Republican says she'll probably support a motion to call witnesses, aligning herself with Democrats. But she says she'll do that only after each side has argued its case and she says she's not decided whether she'll back seeking “any particular witness."

It's carefully parsed stances like that — and her track record of seeking bipartisan deals that sometimes fly and sometimes flounder on major issues such as immigration — that have won her respect and scorn.

Collins, 67, has embraced that approach for nearly 24 years in the Senate, even as compromise has grown increasingly scarce and politically perilous in the age of the retaliation-prone Trump. She did it again last week, saying she and three fellow Republicans had won a commitment from GOP leaders for a vote on whether to call witnesses.

“She’s been open to conversation many times when very few on the Republican side of the aisle would be," said Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. But he added, “There have been moments when she broke my political heart."

One of those times, he said, was Collins' pivotal vote putting Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court in 2018, despite allegations of sexual assault. That vote won Collins appreciation from conservatives who had long bristled at her moderate stances but enmity from liberals who had been gratified by her views on issues such as abortion rights. Maine voters' reaction to her Kavanaugh vote will help determine whether Collins wins a fifth six-year term in the November elections.

Supporters call Collins a voice for moderation who is not afraid to oppose Trump, such as helping derail his 2017 effort to kill President Barack Obama's health care law. Just last week, she was among four Republicans to say they will back a Democratic bill curbing Trump's ability to attack Iran — just enough to make passage likely.

“The Senate needs Susan Collins and people like Susan Collins," said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the moderate Republican Main Street Coalition.

Foes call Collins an opportunist more interested in burnishing her centrist brand than producing results. They say she has bowed to Trump too often and that his divisive policies and rhetoric mean the time for half-measures has passed.

“She’s not adapted, and she has to actually pick a side, and that side is right or wrong,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Trump seemed to endorse her on Twitter before Christmas, writing, “I agree 100%” with an earlier tweet by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., urging her reelection. It is unclear how that will play in Maine, where voters recall that Collins said she would not vote for Trump in 2016.

Collins' newest ordeal is over impeachment. Democrats say testimony from four current and former White House officials plus documents, which Trump blocked House investigators from receiving, are needed for the Senate trial to be fair.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has hammered away on that message, implicitly pressuring Republicans by saying senators must choose whether to be “in the search of truth, or in service of the president's desire to cover it up." The Senate Democrats' campaign arm has created a website called WhatChangedSusan.com, which contrasts her statements backing additional evidence during President Bill Clinton's 1999 impeachment trial with her nuanced comments this time.

With Republicans controlling the Senate 53-47, Democrats will need four GOP senators to join them to successfully call witnesses. That's heaped pressure on Collins and her three allies: Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Collins is the only one of the four seeking reelection this year. She said of Schumer: “I don’t think he’s really very interested in doing anything but trying to defeat me by telling lies to the people of Maine."

She has said she wants to follow the Clinton impeachment process and will not decide whether to support calling witnesses until the Trump trial arguments are complete, perhaps in two weeks. That means if Schumer, as promised, forces votes Tuesday on calling witnesses, Collins will vote “no" and immediately draw Democratic criticism for squelching needed testimony.

Democrats facing an apparent uphill climb to grab the Senate majority are eager to defeat Collins, one of the more vulnerable GOP incumbents. They hope to erode her support in narrowly divided Maine by emphasizing her vote for Kavanaugh, for a $1.5 trillion tax bill that disproportionately helped corporations and high-earning people and, if she opposes witnesses or votes to acquit Trump, on impeachment.

Some groups that have worked with Collins in the past have come out against her or stayed silent.

Margot Milliken, who leads the Maine Planned Parenthood's political arm, wrote an op-ed in Saturday's Portland Press Herald saying the group “can no longer” trust Collins on women's health issues. Planned Parenthood honored Collins in 2017 as a “champion” on the topic.

NARAL Pro-Choice America and the League of Conservation Voters have endorsed Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House and leading contender for the Democratic Senate nomination.

“When the stakes have never been higher and when we have never needed her more during the Trump era, we have been disappointed on far too many occasions,” said the League of Conservation Voters' top lobbyist, Tiernan Sittenfeld. She cited Collins' support for the tax bill, which opened federal lands in Alaska to mineral drilling, and her vote for the conservative Kavanaugh.

On the other hand, David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which sometimes tries toppling moderate Republicans, said the group “will definitely not challenge her” this year. He cited her Kavanaugh vote and the need to protect the GOP's Senate majority.

“There are plenty of opportunities where we can commiserate about things,” said Alaska's Murkowski, another moderate and one of Collins' closest Senate friends.

Collins' office did not make her available for this story.

A former congressional aide elected to the Senate in 1996, Collins has helped forge or joined bipartisan pacts reorganizing the intelligence agencies, ending the “don't ask, don't tell” ban on gays openly serving in the military and halting some government shutdowns.

A 2018 bipartisan compromise that she helped craft offering potential citizenship to many young immigrants died but it got more votes in the GOP-run Senate than any alternative, including Trump's. She got significant tax breaks included in a $1.5 trillion tax bill in 2017 and backed it after party leaders committed to separate votes on bills reining health care premiums, but those other measures went nowhere.