Being the adult in the room is not always an easy burden to bear. And under the nuclear option, both senators say it's gotten even harder to negotiate.
That difficulty showed in full earlier this year. Back in February, congressional Republicans had a big problem on their hands. Conscious of the drag on their party that resulted from last October's government shutdown debacle, leaders in both chambers knew that they would have to vote to raise the debt ceiling. But, particularly in the Senate, none of them wanted their fingerprints on it.
In an unusual vote that lasted for nearly an hour, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins had had enough.
The "usual suspects" — as some call them, Murkowski notes wryly — were unwilling to take yet another bullet for their colleagues without their leaders offering a pound of flesh as well. Collins was one of the first to vote to raise the ceiling, but Murkowski approached McConnell and said she would not vote for the measure unless he joined her, according to sources on the Senate floor. She huddled with McConnell and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn before the three retreated into the Republican cloakroom with Arizona's John McCain, South Dakota's John Thune and others to cajole a few more aye votes out of the conference. Finally, McConnell and Cornyn voted in favor of the bill, joining Collins, Murkowski, and eight others.
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson praised Murkowski and Collins for their work with the majority. "[They] often want to work with us, and we value working with them," he said, before adding: "But Senator McConnell is usually trying to prevent them from working with us."
Murkowski argues, however, that her vote can't be bought so easily and that leadership in either party rarely puts any real pressure on her. "I may be a bad politician that way because I just don't have what some people term as 'trade bait.' When I'm looking at an issue, it's either good policy or it's not good policy."¦ My vote is something that I take very, very seriously," she said. Reid has never called her to ask for her vote, Murkowski added, and she said that she's "surprised" that the White House never has either.
Jentleson said, however, that Murkowski had spoken with Reid in the cloakroom as recently as last Wednesday about the Keystone Pipeline. Murkowski told Reid, he said, that she wanted to support a separate measure approving the pipeline, but warned that McConnell was telling Republicans not to do so.
Collins is more open about her desire to use her position to influence policy and said that Reid has called her a number of times asking for her vote. As for her Democratic colleagues, Collins says she's approached "very frequently" to sign onto their legislation.
"What I've found is in some cases, by being willing to work with people on the other side of the aisle, I'm able to advance Republican ideas or secure amendments," she said, pointing to last month's fight over unemployment-insurance benefits. Collins was one of the first to sign on to a bipartisan effort to extend the program and, knowing that Reid was unlikely to give Republicans any amendments, she worked the language of some of the potential amendments into the text of the bill itself.