WASHINGTON — Soft-spoken Republican Sen. Susan Collins is quite popular these days, fielding calls from President Barack Obama, members of the GOP leadership and top Democrats Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer.
The outreach was more than just congratulations for winning a fourth term. Both parties have an incentive for courting Collins.
Come January, the centrist from Maine will be a crucial member of a group of moderates wielding considerable clout in the Republican-led Senate, along with independent Angus King, also of Maine, and a handful of Democrats from Republican states. Depending on the issue, the moderate ranks could increase slightly as Republicans from Democratic states move to the middle ahead of 2016 re-election bids.
The GOP likely will hold 54 seats next year, a solid majority but six short of the 60 necessary to break Democratic filibusters and delaying tactics. Incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would need the support of Maine's King and Democrats such as North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Montana's Jon Tester to move legislation over any Democratic objections.
"I hope that those of us who are committed to actually getting legislation passed can work together and bridge some of the partisan divide," Collins said in an interview.
McConnell has promised to get bills passed and change how the Senate operates, returning to past practices in which Republicans and Democrats offer amendments to legislation and get a vote. Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has limited amendment votes, in part over frustration with Republican obstruction and to spare his vulnerable Democrats from tough votes.
"The way it should work is to be able to offer amendments as well because if there are other pieces of legislation that come up, that can be improved. That's the whole idea of the amendment process," Donnelly said in an interview Tuesday in which he added that "there's probably a pent-up well right now."
Collins listed potential measures that could get done, from tax overhaul to transportation, from jobs bills to legislation that she and Donnelly are sponsoring to define full time in the 2010 health care law to 40 hours per week instead of 30. The lawmakers have complained that the law has created uncertainty for employers, some of whom have cut hours to avoid complying with requirements to provide health care coverage.
Manchin also backs the work-week bill along with more than a dozen Republicans.
King has joined forces with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., on legislation to overhaul student loan repayment programs, partnered with Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska on a bill offering tax credits to employers who offer paid family leave and introduced a measure with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to create a commission to review outdated regulations.
King, who will continue to caucus with Democrats, said he has been in touch with Republicans since the election. He will be watching closely to see whether the GOP is serious about acting to pass legislation.
"When I went home to Maine last year, I said after I was here about six months, one of the most amazing things I find about this place is everybody thinks they're in charge and nobody is," King said in an interview. "Just as the Democrats needed six or eight Republican votes in order to move anything through the Senate to get to 60, that same rule will now apply to the Republicans."
The number of moderates was severely depleted in the Republican onslaught on Election Day.
Gone are Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, replaced by steadfast conservatives Tom Cotton and Thom Tillis who see their mandate as stopping President Barack Obama and Democratic policies.
Another moderate Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, trails Republican challenger Dan Sullivan as votes are still being counted in Alaska. Louisiana voters will decide Dec. 6 between another moderate Democrat, three-term Sen. Mary Landrieu, and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. Landrieu faces an uphill fight to hold her seat.
Republican winners in Arkansas and quite possibly Louisiana come from states where the electorate has essentially erased Democrats from the congressional delegation, hardly a boost to compromise and consensus-building.
"The loss of many of the moderates in the Senate hurts the American people, but I'm hopeful that the remaining moderate senators can help fill that role," Heitkamp, who was elected in 2012, said in a statement.
The North Dakota Democrat points out that her first bill was a joint effort to help Native American children with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Despite the significant numbers of liberals and conservatives in the Senate, several Republicans will be forced to move to the center politically as they face a Democratic-leaning electorate in their home state in a higher turnout, presidential election year. Collins, King and the other moderates may get help from Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson and Marco Rubio of Florida, if he doesn't run for president.
Add Democrat Mark Warner, who barely squeaked by in Virginia last week, to the group.