Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she used a “secret weapon” to help end the government shutdown.
“I quickly realized that I needed a way to control the debate because senators can be quite loquacious and they always want to be the first to speak and there’s a lot of crosstalk and I wanted to make sure that everybody’s voice was heard. So Sen. Heidi Heitkamp a few years ago gave me an African Talking Stick that is used by a tribe that is in Kenya and in the Sudan region, and it is used by the tribe to control the debate when they are in meeting and I found that it worked very well.”
Those bipartisan meetings helped senators vote to reopen the government with a vote of 81-18, ending a contentious weekend in which immigration policy represented the largest stumbling block. Republicans refused to consider legislation to protect “Dreamers,” hundreds of thousands of undocumented citizens at the heart of the contentious budget battle, and Democrats refused to budge without protection for that group.
“I would hand the stick to whoever was seeking recognition and until that person was finished, no one could interrupt him or her. And then I would take the stick and pass it on to the next person,” Collins said. “Occasionally it was tossed to the next person, but it worked amazingly well to ensure that everyone had a chance to be heard.”
Senators could face a similar legislative showdown in nearly three weeks when an extension to fund the government expires on Feb. 8.
“That is always a risk, and that is why I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can,” she said. “There is a real commitment on both sides of the aisle in the Senate to work so hard to achieve result, a bill that would pass the Senate, I hope by more than 60 votes and that that would give it momentum going into the House.”
Collins, who talked to the president after the Senate vote, explained her personal connection to the Dreamers in Maine.
The Dreamers, an estimated 800,000 individuals nationwide who entered the country as minors, were protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy established by the Obama administration in 2012. The policy was rescinded by the Trump administration last year.
“I told him about Dreamers that I talked with in Maine who had come here at age 2, at age 4, at age 6 – that some of them didn’t even realize that they were not American citizens until they went to apply for their driver’s licenses. And I also agree with him that we do need to strengthen our border security. So he seemed to be listening carefully and receptive and to recognize that legislation is needed. I don’t mean to speak for the president, but I did have a good conversation with him just last night.”
Collins remains optimistic that senators will hammer out a long-term budget and immigration deal. She already had a bipartisan meeting scheduled later that day, and hurried off with her talking stick in hand to continue and control the debate, her way.