AUGUSTA, Maine – Sen. Susan Collins was open to Democrats’ plan to advance a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer amid reports he will retire, saying she has discussed the process with the senator charged with shepherding the nomination.
Democrats do not need to woo the Maine Republican because they have control of the 50-50 Senate by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, but Collins has voted for all but one of the high-court nominees that have gone before the Senate during her career, making her among the Republicans most likely to break ranks on this nomination.
Getting any Republican senators to vote for the nominee would allow Democrats’ to claim bipartisanship following three fraught and mostly partisan fights on nominees under former President Donald Trump. Collins’ comments, among the first by a Republican senator Wednesday, could signal a less acrimonious confirmation process to come.
Collins praised Breyer at an event in Augusta on Wednesday, saying he had devoted his career to public service. She declined to speculate on who President Joe Biden would nominate or how she would ultimately vote but said she had spoken with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat and the judiciary committee chairman, about a possible timeline. Durbin ensured Collins she would have necessary materials to inform her decision, she said.
The senator said there was “no need for any rush.” Breyer does not plan to retire until the end of the Supreme Court session in the summer, although the confirmation process could begin before he officially steps down.
“We can take our time, have hearings, go through the process, which is very important,” Collins said. “It is a lifetime appointment after all.”
Collins’ stance on Supreme Court nominees has drawn significant attention in recent years. She has voted for nominees from presidents of both parties throughout her career, but her 2018 vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh prompted fierce criticism from reproductive rights’ groups that had long backed her and led to fierce Democratic organization against her.
That scrutiny has persisted after Kavanaugh sided with other conservative justices to allow a strict Texas abortion law to remain in place last fall and appeared open to overturning the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in oral arguments in December despite assuring Collins that he thought the 1973 ruling was “settled law.”
Collins voted against her party on Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the high court in the fall of 2020, citing a rushed process and a desire to stick with a precedent set by Republicans in 2016 to not confirm a justice in a presidential election year. She never weighed in on Barrett’s experience or judicial history amid a contentious reelection campaign.
Breyer has served on the court since 1994 and is currently one of three liberal justices. Biden’s ability to nominate his replacement would be unlikely to alter the ideological balance of the court but could turn into a partisan issue during a midterm year.
Biden said Wednesday afternoon that he would wait for an official announcement from Breyer before weighing in. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said Wednesday afternoon that the Democratic president’s eventual nominee would receive “a prompt hearing.”
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a Wednesday statement that he wished Breyer well in retirement and “looked forward” to reviewing Biden’s nominee.
Collins’ record, which includes voting to confirm two Supreme Court justices nominated by former President Barack Obama, would seem to make her one of the Republican senators more likely to vote to confirm a Biden nominee. Since 2017, Supreme Court nominations have not been subject to the filibuster, so Democrats do not need any Republican votes.
Biden said during the 2020 campaign that he planned to nominate the first black woman to the Supreme Court. Those floated as possible nominees include Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Collins was one of three Republicans who voted in favor of confirming Jackson to that court last year.