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Q&A with Maine’s Susan Collins on her 5,000th consecutive Senate vote

Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine is interviewed on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 12, 2012, after casting her 5,000th consecutive vote.
By Ed O'Keefe, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, cast her 5,000th consecutive vote Thursday, earning her the third-longest consecutive-vote streak of any senator in U.S. history. Ask Collins about the milestone and she’s quick to note that not only is her vote streak consecutive, but it accounts for every vote held in the Senate since she joined the chamber in January 1997.

Though impressive, Collins’ record is nowhere near the top. The all-time consecutive vote record holder is former Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., who answered 10,252 consecutive roll calls between April 20,1966, and Oct. 18, 1988. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, maintains the longest streak of current senators, having cast roughly 6,450 votes since 1993.

In anticipation of the big vote, Collins spoke with us earlier this week about the feat. Excerpts:

Q: When did you make the decision to try to make every vote?

A: At the end of my first term — and I was sworn in January 1997 — so in December 1999, I realized that I had completed the first Congress without missing a vote and I started thinking about my hero, Margaret Chase Smith, the legendary senator from Maine, and the fact that she was known for her diligence as a senator and compiled a record of voting consecutively without missing a vote for 13 years, until she was forced by surgery to miss a vote.

I’ve been blessed with good health, so that has enabled me to achieve that goal, but it also has required some sacrifices along the way. But I think it’s important at this time, when public confidence in Congress is very low, to demonstrate to my constituents that I really care about doing a good job for them.

Q: What kind sacrifices have you made to maintain your voting record?

A: I go to Maine virtually every weekend and instead of coming back on Mondays in order to be here for the usual 5:30 p.m. vote that we have on Monday nights, I virtually always come back on Sundays just to make sure that I’m here, because Maine — particularly Bangor, where I live — is a sufficient distance and the flights are sufficiently scarce that I don’t want to take the chance that there’s a canceled flight or a snowstorm that delays me and causes me to miss a vote.

During my 2008 campaign, which was a vigorous contest — where the Democrats’ top candidate, Tom Allen, was running against me — I managed to secure an endorsement from the Democratic mayor of Maine’s second largest city, which is Lewiston. And the Democratic mayor was going to do his endorsement at this big reception for me that was on a Friday night.

I’ve always suspected that [Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., then-chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] got word of that, so for whatever reason, we had unusual votes that Friday night and I completely missed the major press event at which the Democratic mayor of the second-largest city of Maine announced that he was endorsing me over my Democratic opponent. This was a big deal politically.

Q: Any near-misses you recall?

A: In March of 2010 both cloak rooms had signaled no more votes. Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Scott Brown, R-Mass., and I were all flying to Boston; we had gone to the airport. And we were literally boarding the shuttle to Boston when all of us got these emergency calls and the U.S. Airways flight attendant came running after us and said, “Don’t leave on this plane! A vote has been called.”

All three of us raced back to the Capitol. That was a very near-miss, because we literally were boarding the plane and starting to sit down.

Q: Trying to maintain this record must rack your brain and wreak havoc on your schedule, no?

A: I can only do my best and take every precaution, but ultimately some day I realize that either due to illness or a family emergency or some other valid reason I will miss a vote. But I’m proud of the fact that I’ve gone 15 1/2 years without missing one and I believe it reflects the seriousness with which I take this job and that I consider it an honor to represent the people of Maine. And I know the people of my state have a great work ethic and I’ve tried to mirror that.

Q: Growing up, did you have a perfect attendance record in school?

A: I do not believe that I did, but one of my classmates emailed me or did an online comment, saying “You were always like that in school, too. You never missed school.” But I don’t think that’s the case.

But I do tell students that it’s like going from kindergarten through high school without missing a day of school. And their teachers always thank me for stressing the importance of attendance.

Q: Did you even schedule your forthcoming wedding for the month-long August recess to ensure that you wouldn’t miss any votes?

A: That’s actually pathetically true. I had wanted to get married during the July 4 recess, but last year Sen. Reid truncated the July 4 recess, which I believe altered the wedding plans of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. So I just did not dare schedule it for the July 4 recess for fear that something would happen to me.

And I don’t think my fiancé would understand being left at the altar so that I wouldn’t miss a vote. I think that would damage our relationship.

Q: So are you making plans to curtail your honeymoon, just in case?

A: I’m not going to answer any questions about the honeymoon. [Laughter]

Q: Does the voting process feel any different today than it did 15 years ago?

A: I would say that there was more respect for individuals who did not necessarily vote the party line all the time back then. There’s nothing that’s changed about the way people do it. Occasionally we have a very important vote where we vote from our seats, but that’s unusual now. We’re racing off and moving on to the next thing.

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