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Susan Collins' rhetoric on Supreme Court raises eyebrows

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, for a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice continued...
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in...

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a blue-state Republican and one of only a few pro-choice GOP lawmakers still in Congress, has found herself in a uniquely influential role. With Donald Trump poised to nominate a far-right ideologue to the Supreme Court next week, Maine's senior senator may be one of the few things standing between the status quo and a high court that would push American jurisprudence in a radical direction.

With this in mind, Collins made some Sunday-show appearances yesterday, and many involved in the debate paid careful attention to her comments. This quote, in particular, stood out:

"I would not support a nominee who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade, because that would mean to me that their judicial philosophy did not include a respect for established decisions, established law."

At face value, this appears to open the door to a possible showdown: the president has already said he will nominate a jurist who would overturn the Roe v. Wade precedent, while Collins suggested she's not prepared to support such a nominee.

The trouble, however, is her use of the word "demonstrated."

Under this rhetorical framework, so long as the Supreme Court nominee hasn't explicitly announced his or her intention to reject the court's precedent on reproductive rights, Collins isn't necessarily prepared to balk. And given the fact that the likely nominee will have avoided such an unambiguous posture, her on-air comments yesterday left quite a bit of wiggle room.

Indeed, CNN's Jake Tapper pointed to Justice Neil Gorsuch, whose nomination the Maine Republican supported. "[D]on't you think, just as an academic matter, Neil Gorsuch, for whom you voted, don't you think he is probably going to vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade if given the chance?" the host asked.

"I actually don't," Collins replied, pointing to Gorsuch's purported support for honoring precedent.

Let's pause to note a few key truths that the senator may not fully appreciate. First, Gorsuch has already demonstrated a willingness to abandon precedent.

Second, Collins' recent track record on predictions is hardly reassuring. After all, Collins also said she expected the Republican-led Congress to act to save DACA protections for Dreamers and to help families adversely affected by Trump's anti-health care efforts. In both cases, the senator was mistaken.

Now she expects Trump's Supreme Court nominees to uphold Roe v. Wade. Perhaps her office should start writing the press statement now expressing Collins' disappointment about the opposite outcome -- ahead of her 2020 re-election bid.

And finally, in case this isn't obvious, Collins has enormous leverage in this 51-49 Senate, to the point that she could demand almost anything ahead of the upcoming Supreme Court fight. In fact, it's only a slight exaggeration to suggest the Maine Republican could practically pick the nominee.

Everything Collins said yesterday indicates she's not fully using this leverage to her advantage.

Postscript: Collins added yesterday that Trump told her he "would not ask" potential Supreme Court nominees whether they'll vote to overturn Roe. Putting aside why anyone would believe anything the president says about any subject, the fact of the matter is, Trump wouldn't have to ask them.

The White House's short list for the high court was compiled by outside groups, most notably the Federalist Society, that have already screened prospective nominees for, among other things, their position on reproductive rights.