Collins’ New Role Puts Her in Spotlight

Homeland Security, Ranking Member’s Presidential Bid Add to Challenges

Posted February 11, 2003 at 6:45pm

The gavel of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee can be what the chairman makes of it. The panel can launch high-profile investigations of the executive branch, or it can immerse itself in the finer points of federal procurement policy. So which path will new Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) follow?

“We’re going to do both,” she said.

That may not be the most illuminating answer, but it could be an important one, given that her priorities will likely command an increasing amount of attention on Capitol Hill given the current environment.

Re-elected last year to her second term, Collins now takes the gavel of Governmental Affairs just as the panel’s stock is rising with the addition of the new Homeland Security Department to its oversight portfolio.

“I think it will breathe some life into Governmental Affairs,” Sen. Bob Bennett

(R-Utah), a panel member, said of the expanded jurisdiction. “It will make it a more attractive committee. Some people have considered it something of a backwater, but not anymore.”

Unlike in the House, where the top Republicans decided to create a new select committee to deal with Homeland Security, the Senate leadership chose instead to fold authorizing authority for the department into an existing panel.

“Having created the department, we’re clearly the logical committee to exercise the kind of broad oversight that’s going to be needed to make sure it gets up and running,” Collins said.

And the current preoccupation with security issues means there has been no shortage of lawmakers eager to get involved. “We thought of creating a new subcommittee, but there’s such broad interest in the new department that I thought it would be better to handle it at the full committee where every committee member would be able to participate,” said Collins.

While she has already jumped into her new legislative role, the Maine moderate is still developing her own style as chairwoman.

Collins, who is well-liked but by Senate standards has never been known for cultivating relationships with the media, will inevitably be compared to her two outsized gavel predecessors — Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the camera-friendly presidential candidate, and ex-Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the actor and Clinton administration inquisitor.

Though by all accounts the two lawmakers enjoy a good working relationship, the contrast between Collins and now-ranking member Lieberman will be especially telling.

With his presidential campaign now going full-throttle, the Connecticut Senator is one of the primary attention magnets on the Hill, a prominence that is reflected in his press strategy. On the Governmental Affairs Web site, nearly all of the 17 press releases posted since the start of the 108th Congress were put up by Lieberman rather than Collins.

“I talked to my staff about that just this morning,” Collins said Monday. “I sent them an e-mail saying that we have to get going on that. We are still putting our staff together and we have not yet hired a press person, so we are behind in getting our Web site up and running.”

While she doesn’t get into the political implications of sharing the committee spotlight with Lieberman, Collins is aware of the logistical issues involved in coordinating panel work with a frequent flier.

“It is a little bit of a challenge to accommodate Senator Lieberman’s schedule, as he himself has said,” Collins said. “I try in scheduling hearings to make sure that he is able to be present.”

More so than many other committees, Governmental Affairs has a tradition of allowing the minority a decent amount of influence over the agenda. Democrats are confident that will continue in the Collins era.

“The relationship has been excellent,” said Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips. “We hope that the two of them will be working together well, especially on Homeland Security.”

Overseeing that department will be somewhat uncharted territory, especially since its jurisdiction bumps up against that of several other agencies and, thus, other Congressional committees.

Collins spent some time at this past weekend’s Republican retreat in West Virginia huddling with House Select Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), discussing various approaches to handling the new department.

Beyond security issues — on Friday the committee will hold a hearing on President Bush’s proposal for a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center — Collins hopes to continue work on more traditional Governmental Affairs tasks such as postal reform and civil service issues.

In that respect she will be more like her House counterpart, new Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), rather than his crusading predecessor, Rep. Dan Burton

(R-Ind.).

Collins isn’t the only one learning on the job. The lead role on many oversight issues will fall to freshman Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who takes over for Collins as chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations.

“Everything from spam to terrorism has been tossed on my plate,” said Coleman, who added that he had recently spent an hour with ex-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a former PSI chairman, “talking about how he ran the committee.”

Barring investigations of the White House and the occasional union matter, Governmental Affairs rarely ventures into territory that is ideologically inflammatory. So the centrist Collins’ periodic disagreements with the more conservative GOP leadership shouldn’t spill over into the committee too often. And if they do, Collins said she is ready.

“I see that playing out the same way it does when I vote independently now,” Collins said. “I’ll always welcome the suggestions and the views of the leadership and find that very helpful. I know they respect the fact that I am the chairman and that means I set the agenda, so I don’t anticipate any problems with that.”