When a reporter recently asked Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins if Alabama’s rejection of a racist GOP candidate and the narrowing of the party’s majority to 51-49 meant it is the “moderates” time to come forward, she replied: “Let’s hope so.”

She should have added: “Especially if it’s in the national interest.”

Sadly, despite her colleagues’ supposed promises to block threats to Medicaid and Medicare, Collins is not making good on that pledge. In fact, if she votes for the pending “tax reform” bill, she is being taken to the cleaners.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders are so desperate to pass any piece of legislation, including this charade of a reform measure, one that over time enriches the wealthy and increases taxes on middle- and lower-income people, they openly say they will attack these critical programs to lower the deficit — the very deficit they are raising by as much as $1.5 trillion.

So much for Collins’ comment that she has “ironclad” commitments to protect these health insurance programs so vital to her constituents in Maine and throughout the U.S.

[Sen. Collins takes huge leap of faith with tax bill. Critics say she’s getting played.]

Let me pass on to Collins a lesson in moderate action by Republicans — action that was truly in the national interest and helped bring about a truly significant change in international affairs.

In 1986, Republicans held a similarly narrow majority in the U.S. Senate. Minority Democrats proposed a sweeping bill of sanctions against a brutal and increasingly unpopular white-minority regime in South Africa.

A liberal/moderate Republican senator, Charles “Mac” Mathias Jr. of Maryland, took the lead in designing a more moderate bill that drew the support of a few GOP colleagues and brought passage of the legislation. Along with Sens. Daniel Evans of Washington and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, the few Republican votes and Democratic minority led to passage of the bill.

It was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan, who wanted to pursue a very narrow and ineffective policy of “constructive engagement.” Following the moderate example of Mathias and his colleagues, 31 Republicans joined the Democrats to override Reagan’s veto by a vote of 78-21.

These Republicans were truly moderate senators who knew how to act, and vote, in the national interest — a state of political courage and principle that does not appear to exist in today’s Republican Party.

[Sen. Collins made the GOP tax bill better but it is far from good enough to deserve her vote]

Collins and several other colleagues, such as Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Bob Corker of Tennessee, ought to know that the proposed tax legislation is not in the national interest. It merely deepens the pockets of the wealthy and hurts the middle class with dramatic cuts in taxes for already cash-bloated corporations and taking away or reducing vital health insurance benefits for low-income Americans.

Bipartisan committees have made these conclusions and demonstrated that the bill will increase the deficit by more than $1 trillion — the issue so many Republicans rail against during Democratic presidencies.

The passage of this tax bill would be a boost for a thoroughly unqualified president, who Corker has openly said is “unfit” for the responsibilities of the presidency. Corker has termed him a child who risks causing World War III; Collins condemned his lack of character and said she would not vote for him last year.

What is going on?

What is happening is the withering, if not complete disappearance, of a moderate backbone among Republicans — a complete lack of political courage to act in the national interest. It also could be called a lack of conscience.

Many factors led to the decision of the white minority government in South Africa to surrender the reins of government to the black majority in the early 1990s. But the principled opposition of the United States, then considered the leader of the free world and a recognized economic power, played a key role in that historic development.

It would not have been the case if a few Republican senators had not shown the courage to stand up and vote for the national interest.

Frederic B. Hill, a former correspondent for The Baltimore Sun in Europe and Africa, later conducted wargaming exercises and conferences on national security issues for the Department of State. He was director of foreign affairs for Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias Jr. in 1985 and 1986.

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