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As the government hurtles toward a shutdown, House Republicans are still desperately in search of any plan that can win a majority. Even if they can pass something, it’s doomed in the Democratic Senate.

Which puts Susan Collins, the Senate’s influential Republican centrist, in a very challenging position.

The moderate from Maine is the top member of her party on the Senate Appropriations Committee, setting her up to play a pivotal role in negotiations over spending levels. She has played dealmaker in a previous shutdown, helping broker an agreement to reopen the government in 2013 when conservatives shuttered it in a failed attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act.

In an interview this week, Collins warned her party that allowing the government to close would be a mistake for both substantive and political reasons. Her comments are an important signal to the House that the Senate’s patience with conservative dysfunction is wearing thin.

“I’ve lived through shutdowns. They are never good policy,” Collins said.

“Historically, Republicans have been blamed,” she cautioned. “So whether you look at it through a policy or a political lens, a shutdown is never beneficial.”

Navigating her own party is Collins’ biggest obstacle. It may be strange for a centrist Republican to be leading the spending strategy for an increasingly conservative party, but that’s the place the fifth-term senator finds herself in.

Both she and House conservatives are well aware they do not see eye to eye.

“Her record and my record are probably as divergent as you can get,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a stalwart in the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “If she’s helping draft and design how we’re going to spend our money, that would make me nervous, uncomfortable.”

Collins told Republicans this week she is beginning to talk to House members about an eventual solution to the spending fight, according to attendees at party meetings who spoke on condition of anonymity. But no senator can control the other side of the Capitol, where House Republicans’ whims are out of both her and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hands.

Moderate in both ideology and temperament, Collins is seen by President Joe Biden’s party as a bulwark against the House GOP. After Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to oust her in 2020, their relationship turned frosty for more than a year but recently has thawed — the two meet privately and regularly work together.

These days Schumer often praises her by name. Other Democrats do, too.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Collins’ job is “very tough. I’m delighted she’s there doing it.”

“She’s in hand-to-hand combat every day, as far as I’m concerned,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip. “I have great confidence in her.”

Like Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, her Democratic counterpart from Washington, Collins can cut a serious and sometimes intimidating figure in the Capitol, a reputation that precedes her in both party meetings and on the Senate floor. Allies cite her steeliness as an asset.

“Respect often comes with fear,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of some colleagues’ perception of Collins.

Collins cuts a far different leadership profile than former Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), her predecessor as the GOP spending chief and a gregarious proponent of backroom deals. Murray and Collins earned plaudits for their work rebuilding the bread-and-butter appropriations process in the Senate, even from conservative senators who break with her on big votes.

Of course, that praise only goes so far. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) threw a procedural grenade at Murray and Collins’ plans to pass a three-bill spending package this month, complaining about “how grotesquely dysfunctional this place is.” The Senate left Thursday after stalling out on the bill and is now moving onto trying to avoid a shutdown in a week’s time with a stopgap bill.

Collins has done a “much better job than her predecessors. But she’s in a system that has not generated much real difference,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).

Despite a voting record that skews more leftward than basically every Senate Republican but Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Collins has maintained her sway in an increasingly right-leaning party by working within the party apparatus. She’s closely aligned with McConnell on much of the party’s spending strategy, and she’s conspicuously avoided undermining Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

When conservatives assess Collins, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said, “there’s some undercurrent of: ‘Oh, she’ll give away the store.’ But you know, she’s also a pragmatist.”

If Republicans win the majority next November, Collins would become the appropriations chair, a huge capstone to her career. Even though she’s not technically in charge of the committee this fall, the GOP’s internal battles over spending might make her job this fall even tougher than Murray’s.

“I’m not going to make it personal about Sen. Collins,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who was chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the 2013 shutdown. “I’m just going to say, I don’t trust the Senate Republican conference as a whole.”

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

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