Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)Congress is a rough place. Partisan tensions regularly boil over into nasty debates with overheated rhetoric that contaminate American politics. An especially pungent ugliness erupts volcanically during the nomination process for vacancies to the US Supreme Court.
Enter US Senator of Maine Susan Collins, who routinely works to rise above the partisan fray in Congress, and she has done so once again in her announced support of the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Of course, don’t expect partisans on the political fringes, who dominate so much of today’s political debate with their enablers in a media echo chamber that amplifies the most shrill voices, to appreciate Sen. Collins’ statesmanship. No, she will be pummeled for her courageous leadership.
During the October 2013 government shutdown, I led backbench, bipartisan efforts in the House to reopen the government. It was a difficult time and legislative leaders in both parties obstructed bipartisan efforts to end the standoff. At that time some congressional Republicans recklessly followed then-freshman Senator Ted Cruz in his gambit to defund Obamacare without a coherent plan to do so, as Republican leaders caved to extreme elements in this futile effort that had no chance of success.
Democrat leaders, leveraging a political opportunity, refused to enter bipartisan negotiations to reopen government, believing Republicans would be forced to come to terms dictated by Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama. I was infuriated and frustrated by Republican recklessness that caused the shutdown in the first place and Democratic political calculation that undermined bipartisan attempts to reopen the government.
It was then that Sen. Collins called me and asked how she could help. She did not push a “Senate knows best” solution. Instead, she listened and provided thoughtful counsel and desperately needed support. This is what the senator does; she helps.
Last year she entered the fray with House and Senate problem solvers from both parties to enact the most consequential legislative achievement of this Congress that will improve roads, bridges, water systems, ports, rural broadband and more thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Throughout her distinguished Senate career, Collins has acted as a legislative bridge builder, always ready to go where most others fear to tread. She is refreshingly open to working in good faith with others who may have perspectives different than her own. Not surprisingly, Maine voters have rewarded the good Senator by electing her five times to the Senate by wide or comfortable margins in a state that leans Democratic.
In 2020 we were told regularly Sen. Collins was on political life support, that she had finally gone too far by antagonizing the soft voters she needed to prevail in the Pine Tree State. Virtually every 2020 public poll had her trailing by substantial margins — except the one that mattered on Election Day, winning by roughly 9 points and well outside the margin for error. Simultaneously, Joe Biden won Maine by 9 points over Donald Trump, whom Collins voted later to convict during his second impeachment in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
So it should come as no surprise that Sen. Collins stepped up on Judge Jackson’s nomination. Her simple eloquence met the moment. “In my view, the role the Constitution clearly assigns to the Senate is to examine the experience, qualifications, and integrity of the nominee. It is not to assess whether a nominee reflects the ideology of an individual Senator or would rule exactly as an individual Senator would want,” she said in a statement last week. And she’s right.
Collins understands the Senate’s advise and consent role as America’s founders intended. She further elaborated: “In my meetings with Judge Jackson, we discussed in depth several issues that were raised in her hearing. Sometimes I agreed with her; sometimes I did not. And just as I have disagreed with some of her decisions to date, I have no doubt that, if Judge Jackson is confirmed, I will not agree with every vote that she casts as a Justice. That alone, however, is not disqualifying. Indeed, that statement applies to all six Justices, nominated by both Republican and Democratic Presidents, whom I have voted to confirm.” Bravo.
Collins has voted for six of the nine current justices serving on the United States Supreme Court, four Republicans and two Democrats. These days it is rare for a senator to defer to the president of the opposite party on a Supreme Court nomination. Most senators typically disqualify a Supreme Court nominee of the opposing party on ideological grounds, even as they acknowledge the strong qualifications and good character of the nominees themselves.
Some would suggest Collins is a throwback to a bygone era of bipartisan comity. To the contrary, she represents the future if the Senate and country are ever able to move beyond the partisan trench warfare that defines our times. What has changed over the years is the number of pragmatic centrists in Congress, which have shrunk, along with the number of competitive House districts, while those who embrace the party line have grown.
No doubt Collins’ critics on the right and left fringes will not be sending her thank you notes for supporting Judge Jackson, for whom she previously voted to serve on the US Court of Appeals last summer.
Who can ever forget the hyperventilating of her detractors during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation process? Collins was smeared and called a “gender traitor,” “rape apologist” and other nasty things by partisan hacks, flacks and hypocrites. They simply could not accept her refusal to disqualify then-judge Kavanaugh over a 35-year-old allegation of sexual misconduct at a high school party somewhere in suburban Washington — which Kavanaugh denied. Collins was merely applying the same discerning judgment about the characteristics that should serve to disqualify a nominee for the Supreme Court.
But, adding insult to injury, Collins, whose long career is marked by a strong record in support of women’s reproductive rights, was slammed by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund for her Kavanaugh vote with this appreciative line: “It’s clear that she [Collins] has turned her back on those she should be championing.” I suppose it’s merciful they didn’t call her a gender traitor.
The great challenge facing Congress and America is the demand for conformity by the self-designated chiefs of the ideological purity police on the left and right, who cannot abide non-conformists like Sens. Collins and Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. What’s worse, the purists always demand members of their own tribe adhere to litmus tests and expect members of the opposing party to show courage by breaking ranks to support the purists’ position.
The purists, of course, never have the courage to break ranks, preferring the safety of following the herd — even when the herd is mindlessly heading for a cliff.
America needs more leaders with guts, and we have one in Sen. Susan Collins. The nation would be well served if we had several dozen more like her in office.