WASHINGTON — Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who helped chart a way out of the government shutdown last week, says the bipartisan group of senators who got together to work on that impasse may try to tackle other fiscal issues in hopes of easing the Capitol's sharp partisanship.
"We desperately need an overhaul of our tax code to make it simpler, fairer, more pro-growth; perhaps we could work on that issue," Collins said in an interview on USA TODAY's weekly newsmaker series, Capital Download. "If the Budget Committee cannot come up with a long-term fiscal plan, I think our committee could try to tackle that issue."
The third-term Republican acknowledges Senate leaders include Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell probably won't be enthusiastic about the idea.
"The leadership on both sides of the aisle always like to have complete control over the agenda and over the solutions, and I understand and respect that," she said — but she suggested they could use the help. "If we hadn't gotten the ball rolling and come up with a plan, many elements of which were included in the two leaders' final package, I'm not sure even as we talk today that government would be reopened and default would have been avoided."
On the fifth day of the shutdown, Collins said she was watching TV in her office with growing frustration as "colleague after colleague from both sides of the aisle (was) coming to the Senate floor and blaming the other side and making very partisan speeches, none of which offered a way out of this impasse."
She outlined a plan, drafted a speech, walked over to the Senate floor and delivered it.
"Immediately my phone started to ring," she said, first with a call from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, then New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
In the end, the ad hoc group that began to meet included fellow Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Jeff Flake of Arizona. The Democrats in the group were Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Independent Angus King also was part of the group.
They met in Collins' corner office, which sports a spectacular view of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.
Her three-point plan, designed to open the government, eventually became a six-point plan that also included raising the debt ceiling. It created the framework followed by the final version, negotiated by the Senate leadership.
Eleven days after Collins' floor speech, as they waited for a final vote on the package, most of the group went to La Loma, a nearby Mexican restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue, for dinner. "Everyone felt really good about the role we played," she said.
It was no surprise, she said, that nearly half of the group was drawn from among the Senate's 20 female members. "The women of the Senate span the ideological spectrum," she said. But "it has been my experience that women tend to be more collaborative in their approach and more interested in solving problems rather than just scoring political points."
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